SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- Rick Bayless examined the dusky-brown disk, about the size of a quarter and several times as thick, in a zip-top plastic bag. It was the last of more than a dozen unfamiliar foods he intended to identify for the group of travelers.
"What is this?" he said. Everyone in the room laughed. Stumping Bayless - a renowned Mexican food authority whose Frontera Grill in Chicago just won the James Beard award for outstanding restaurant - was something participants would revel in for the rest of the trip.
Bayless leaned toward two women who work in the kitchens at Na-Bolom, a museum and research center where Bayless was teaching. In flawless Spanish, Bayless asked what the bag held.
"She says it's something called 'a thousand virgins,' " he said. "I've never heard of that. I have no idea what it is. Senora: Mil virgenes?"
The two women exploded into giggles as their hands flew to cover their mouths. A burst of Spanish followed.
Now it was Bayless' turn to laugh, his cheeks reddening slightly.
"Oh! Not a thousand virgins! I misunderstood. It's a candy made from miel virgin - virgin honey, raw honey."
The 22 travelers seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the main Na-Bolom kitchen roared in amusement, applauding with delight.
Bayless' blue eyes sparkled. Then he turned to teaching a trio of favorite dishes from San Cristobal's region, Chiapas.
The trip was a busman's holiday for Bayless, a working trip that got him out of Frontera Grill and his other restaurant, Topolobampo. For Bayless, temperamentally still the curious graduate student he was when he visited Chiapas the first time, the best reason to travel is to talk with the people he meets along the way.
"Everything I learn from them - what they had for dinner last night, what they cooked for their mother's birthday last week - helps me understand how the food fits into their everyday lives," he said. It's not enough that the food should be authentically prepared from the correct ingredients; he is driven to experience it as a native might.
The foods of Chiapas aren't as familiar to the American eye and palate as those of other Mexican states, Bayless said. "Foodwise, the most exotic place is definitely Chiapas."
Cooking methods in Chiapanecan cooking are simple and rustic, but sauces such as moles and salsas are complex, and tamales appear in dozens of variations.
Bayless and Brian Enyart, managing chef at Frontera and Topolobampo, who assisted Bayless in teaching, had a busy morning planned at the market in San Cristobal. While trip participants divvied up to explore the market in smaller groups, Bayless and Enyart peeled off to shop for ingredients for their first class and dinner that evening.
Later, back at Na-Bolom, Bayless and Enyart went to work, prepping their purchases for the evening's class. Na-Bolom is the 19th-century residence that Swiss conservationist and photographer Gertrude Duby Blom and her husband, Danish archaeologist Franz Blom, occupied before turning the place into a museum and study center in 1951.
After the show and tell, Bayless began the class of Chiapaneco favorites.
"I don't know why it is," Bayless said, as he started to gather the ingredients for sopa de pan Chiapaneco, a rustic bread-and-vegetable dish, "but people's eyes just light up when you mention sopa de pan. It doesn't have anything fancy in it. It's not hard to make. But when you say the name, people get so happy."
The dish layers toasted bread slices, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, zucchini, green beans, plantain and tomatoes flavored with oregano, cinnamon and pepper, then lightly bathed in rich chicken broth. The mixture is baked until the bread and vegetables drink up most of the broth.
He also prepared a festive special-occasion rice flavored with poblano chiles and cilantro, a boneless pork shoulder braised with roasted tomatoes and greens and a seasonal fruit crisp. When all were well under way, Bayless booted the observers out of the kitchen, shooing them into Na- Bolom's handsome dining room.
Murmurings during the meal suggested that diners were beginning to understand why the people of Chiapas get so happy at the notion of sopa de pan. When Bayless came out of the kitchen to answer questions, a cheering ovation greeted him.
Again, his cheeks reddened: "I didn't come out here for that. ... I, uh, just wondered if anyone had questions."
And again, his blue eyes sparkled with pleasure.
Robin Mather Jenkins writes for the Chicago Tribune.