11 September 2007


In Spain and in some Latin American countries a “tortilla” is a type of omelet, sometimes called a “tortilla de patatas”, that is served open faced without being folded over. Here in Mexico where I live the tortilla is a round thin pancake of unleavened bread that is made from either wheat or corn. The wheat tortillas or “tortillas de harina de trigo” are made from wheat flour, lard (which is called “manteca”), and a bit of salt (which is called “sal”). The corn tortillas or “tortillas de maize” are made mostly from white corn. The tortillas de maize are further divided into several other categories. They can be made from corn that has been ground into a flour called “masa” or they can be made from kernels of corn that have been soaked in water containing slaked lime to soften them and then ground into a mixture called “nixtamal”.

The tortillas de maize from either masa or nixtamal can also be divided into variations by using other ingredients such as blue corn (“maize azul”) or by adding small amounts of wheat flour (harina de trigo), cilantro, nopal, etcetera. The same material is used to make similar tortilla-like items called sopes and gorditas as well as things like tamales but I will save explanations about these for another time. Many of the words used to describe the tortilla making process are derived from the Aztec language which is called Nahuatl and is still spoken buy as many as one and a half to two million people in Mexico today.

Here is some of the terminology:

Masa - Dough made from ground corn flower
Nixtamal - Ground corn mixture made from corn soaked in water with lime added
Tequisquite or Cal or Cal Apagada - Slaked lime (calcium hydroxide)
Nejayote - Water containing lime for soaking corn
Testales - Balls of nixtamal to be flattened out into tortillas
Metate - Stone base against which soaked corn is ground into nixtamal
Mano - Hand grinding stone that is used to grind soaked corn against the metate
Comal – Flat surface of clay or metal upon which tortillas are cooked.

In the Northern region of Mexico the Spanish settlers introduced wheat for the making of wheat bread and also more importantly for making the communion host for the Catholic Mass. Wheat tortillas are most popular in the North. In the Central and Southern regions of Mexico, however, the corn tortilla is more popular and it is a staple in the diet of the average Mexican. I happen to like both types and of the corn tortillas I prefer the type made from nixtamal. For me there is no comparison. Corn tortillas made the traditional way from nixtamal are much better tasting than those made from masa. Unfortunately, most tortillas that you buy in the store or in the street these days are made from masa.

The making of traditional corn tortillas is a time consuming process. It took a good portion of the day for a Mexican woman to make enough tortillas for her family. First she had to wash the corn and put it in a clay pot. Then she had to add the lime. Then she heated the pot to a boil for a little while and then let it cool and set overnight. Then she drained off the water and rinsed the corn and using the metate and mano she ground the corn into nixtamal. Then she formed the nixtamal into little balls called testales and then flattened them into tortillas between her hands. I have read in several old books that the sound of many women making tortillas was likened to the sound of applause. After the tortillas were formed they were placed on a “comal” made of fire hardened clay (called “barro”) and cooked on both sides. Then they were ready to eat. Later on they made their comal from metal instead of clay and believe it or not, the lid of a 55 gallon steel drum works very well for this purpose.

In the 1940’s people started taking their soaked corn to a mill to have it ground into nixtamal instead of using a metate and mano. This saved a lot of time and effort because grinding corn on a metate is backbreaking and time consuming work. Later on in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the process or grinding corn into corn flower and making the tortillas on a machine was developed to the point where most commercially made tortillas are made that way today and giant corporations now control much of both the wheat and the corn tortilla processing business. Fortunately I have some friends who live on a rancho where corn tortillas are still make the old fashioned way so I am one of the lucky ones. Never pass up the opportunity to obtain fresh "tortillas de nixtamal". One bite and you will see what I am talking about.


Anonymous said...

Nothing better than a hot tortilla right off the comal with a dash of salt & a splash of green sauce.
Texquexquite is a geological material formed in old lakes. It's a mix of sodium chloride and sodium carbonate...simialar to baking soda. It's used quite a bit in Tlaxcala as the Aztecs had an embargo on the State for over 50 years & it was the only salt they could get. It's used in tortillas & to make Tamales more "puffy".

Bradpetehoops said...

I like Tortillas lots in Philippines, too.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.