PUEBLA, Mexico — Each September, when Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain, people nationwide delight in chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish of mild poblano peppers stuffed with ground pork and fruit, smothered in a sauce of walnut, parsley and pomegranate seeds. The recipe was invented in 1821 by a nun, whose name has been lost to history.
Agustín de Iturbide, a general in the War of Independence, was the first to taste one. Traveling from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, he made a stop in Puebla where the nuns of the Santa Monica convent surprised him with the new creation. Its vivid green, white and red visually evoked the colors of Mexico’s national flag, and it remains synonymous with Independence Day celebrations today.
The story illustrates how cloistered nuns left an anonymous but indelible print on Mexican cuisine over the centuries, dreaming up some of the country’s most iconic dishes when called upon to serve special meals for important men while remaining unnamed and out of sight to the world.
“There were more than 300 recipes created by nuns, but that’s not very well known because it’s almost never mentioned,” said Jesús Vázquez, a historian with the Santa Rosa art museum in Puebla, housed in a former convent that was the birthplace of another iconic delectable: mole poblano.
A hundred years before Iturbide’s mouth watered over chiles en nogada, a nun at Santa Rosa invented the thick brown mole sauce, which is often served over turkey or chicken. It takes days to prepare and contains more than 20 ingredients, from chocolate to peanuts to a variety of chiles deveined to reduce the spiciness.
“The most outstanding recipes are from nuns, and we ask ourselves: Why is that? Out of necessity,” said Sister Caridad, 36, speaking with admiration of her predecessors at Santa Monica who created chiles en nogada. “To seek sustenance every day, God inspired them to invent such exquisite recipes.”
The order of Augustinian Recollects at Santa Monica and the Dominicans of Santa Rosa are cloistered nuns, which means that by taking the habit, they renounce outside life and will live at their convent until death. Historically the women obeyed vows of silence, obedience and austerity, sleeping on wooden boards instead of beds, wearing itchy wool clothing and with no windows through which to see the outside world.
The nuns were not allowed to eat what they cooked, because fasting was supposed to purify their bodies and keep their lives austere. Nor could they even see the faces of those who tried their mole or chiles en nogada; they left the meals on a rotating table with a door for it to be picked up from the outside.
Vázquez, the historian, said those kitchens “were laboratories of gastronomic experiments” where nuns used simple tools and fused pre-Hispanic and European ingredients to create revolutionary new flavors.
Year-round La Soledad is best known for its nuns’ specialty, desserts. Those include polvorones, crumbly cookies made from flour, butter and sugar; orange donuts; anise-covered sweets; and the most popular, crunchy oval cookies known as campechanas. All are served up to the public through a privacy-maintaining rotating device similar to the ones used in the time of Iturbide.
“This community is very traditional in terms of gastronomy,” said Sister Elizabeth, one of La Soledad’s residents. “All of our cookies, chocolates and eggnog are made by hand, without mixers, with saucepans, as was done in the old days.”