Activities Cooking

Cooking Diabla’s Prawns

Taking a lesson with a professional chef is like peeling an onion. The more time you spend working under his tutelage, the more of the paper-thin skin that is peeled away.

I come to Isla Holbox with a desire to learn how to cook an island dish. Isla Holbox is surrounded by pale green waters, so fish is plentiful. Only a decade ago, Holbox was primarily a fisherman’s Island—not a Mexican travel destination.

Eva, my amazing AirBnb host, circulates my request for a private cooking lesson. Suddenly one day her email comes: “Chef Javier accepted the proposal for this class! He is the chef of Luuma, a very special place in the island.” The price is MX$1600 (about $90) which includes materials. It will be the most expensive meal that I will eat during my entire stay but about the same cost as a Sur La Table cooking class in the United States.

Javier and I exchange texts on Sunday to choose a time for my lesson. While he prefers morning, he accepts my request for an evening class. I just know that I will not want to eat Diabla’s Prawns at 11 am. Originally I had requested a lobster dish, but it is not lobster season and he can’t get it. We agree to shrimp as the substitute.

I arrive 10 minutes early for our 18hr (6 pm) class as I am nervous about getting lost on the 10-minute walk to his apartment. He ushers me upstairs where he gives me a Luuma restaurant apron. A native of Spain, Javier has cooked extensively in Ibiza. (There is even a sign in the kitchen of his apartment proclaiming its importance as a memory.) He moved to Holbox about five years ago. He recalls it as a loose collection of foreigners from Europe and Argentina. Before the rapid development of the island through the massive hotel construction and AirBnb development, Holbox was very secluded.

Javier is working with a partner to open a new beachfront restaurant in Holbox. The land is acquired. The project is in its permit stage. He loved his time as Lumma’s chef and speaks lovingly about favorite dishes such as the savory chocolate dessert.

But now the talk turns to a beer cocktail called “Ojo Roja.” On his kitchen counter sits a cold bottle of Dos Equis, Clamato, limes and Worcester sauce. He begins to rapidly squeeze four limes (which he calls lemons). He divides the juice between two glasses. Then he fills them half full with Clamato. A swirl of Worcester sauce is added. He ends by filling to the top with beer then stirs. The taste reminds me of a sparking Bloody Mary. It is light and summery. I like it.

Now it is time to get down to business. Javier is a wonderful conversationalist so we weave back and forth between his recollections of Ibiza, Holbox and travels abroad.

The life of the island chef is seasonal. This allowed Javier to travel for extended periods each year to explore food culture in other countries. In Asia, his favorite country where he stayed was Thailand. He also spent time in Malta to improve his English (which he readily admits was not the best choice). He learned he didn’t want to live in a cold weather country when he visited England. Eventually he settles in Mexico on Isla Holbox.

As we spend this time discussing our collective travels, he shows his chef prowess. First he peeks the prawns but keeps the head and the tail intact (as they hold the most flavor).

Next he minced the garlic and onion. It will be slowly simmered in butter until softened.
In a small pot he boils the child guaillo (a dried chile) for two minutes. Then he lets it rest in the hot water for five more minutes.

The sauce is cooked with butter or oil to reduce then blended until smooth. You then add more garlic and onion to cook for 5 more minutes. We then combined diced tomatoes with the sauce and blended it until it was smooth. (Alternatively, you can add the tomato sauce straight to the onion and garlic mixture and cook for 15 to 25 minutes to make the sauce more thick.) Liquor such as brandy can be added. Chef Javier experimented with Jagermeifter. The liquor gives complexity to the sauce.

The final step was to grill the prawns in a pan until browned. Then the sauce was added. He simmered for five to ten minutes. Depending on your tolerance for spicy foods, you can add more peppers.

Chef Javier served Diabla’s Prawns on a bed of rice with chopped parsley on top. Dos Equis is a great compliment to the spicy dish.

If you like the recipe, please leave a comment or email me. It is tasty!

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