La tortilla – in praise of the humble

OAXACA, México

‘Don Rodrigo, es tiempo, el desayuno,’ Doña Estela sings out, calling me to breakfast. I begin the day with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), frijoles negros (black beans), hot chocolate, and tortillas wrapped in a cloth to keep them soft and warm. After several weeks in Oaxaca, it’s a reflex to load a tortilla with eggs and beans, fold it, and eat it with my fingers. On other days, I breakfast on chilaquiles, quartered tortillas lightly fried, simmered until soft in red or green salsa, and topped with onions or an egg. This breakfast will last me until mid-afternoon.

Nothing is as versatile as corn tortillas. They’re so ubiquitous I used to take them for granted; worse yet, I hardly noticed them in my rush to savor the moles, salsas, and various fillings and toppings. Yet, corn and tortillas long precede moles and salsas. They are the foundation of Mexican meals if not its culture.

Maíz or corn originated in Central America and nourished the indigenous people just as the bison nourished the tribes on the North American plains. Everything about the forty varieties of red, black, yellow, and white maíz is used. Stalks are fed to cattle, the totomoxtle (husk) becomes a wrapper for tamales, elote (‘sweet corn’) is eaten fresh or cooked, and the huitlacoche (a black fungus) is a delicacy eaten fresh or added to soups and sauces. As a Minnesota farm boy, I knew corn largely as the food for cattle and hogs.

The versatile tortillas are believed to have originated with the Mayans some 10,000 years ago. Whether true or not, tortillas predate the Spanish conquest by centuries if not millennia. Until relatively modern times, most individuals – except the elite – ate their food from a large leaf, half a dried gourd, or from a tortilla. Not only did the tortilla provide nourishment, it evolved into various forms to serve as edible plates and bowls. The humble tortilla is so important that Doña Estela doesn’t consider her table fully set until it has a basket or two of warm tortillas. They are as necessary as napkins – if not more important.

At the Saturday tianguis (market) in Tlaxiaco, I come upon two Mixteca women breaking chunks of white stone with hammers and putting the small pieces into quart-sized plastic bags.

‘Why are you smashing the rock?’ I ask.

‘This is cal,’ one of them says. ‘It’s a special stone we need for making tortillas. We can’t make tortillas without it,’ she adds, filling the bag and setting it atop the others for sale. Seeing my perplexity at her answer, she tells me how the cal is part of making tortilla flour.

Cal is slaked lime and when crushed, she mixes it with dried corn and water, boils it for twenty minutes in a clay pot and sets it aside to cool overnight. In the morning, when the kernels are soft, she drains the water and removes the shells from the kernels. After draining and rinsing the corn several times more, she grinds the kernels. After moistening the meal, she kneads it to make the masa or dough. Making tortillas is a lot of hard work. Like most urban Mexicans, Doña Estela buys tortillas at a shop or occasionally makes them from ready-made masa. But Tlaxiaco is a town in the mountains of northwestern Oaxaca, a place where the people still speak Mixteco, adhere to Mixtec culture, and make their own tortillas.

Hungry at mid-afternoon, I stop at a puesto (food stand) and ask the woman for a tlayuda. This is a particularly Oaxacan dish and one of the many forms that tortillas take. Taking a fresh one as large as a pizza, she bakes it for a moment on a comal, the large, stone pan atop a charcoal brazier. Then she turns it over and spreads the tlayuda with some fat and bean paste before adding shredded cabbage, pulled chicken, avocado slices, queso fresco (Oaxacan cheese), and salsa. Folding the tlayuda over the filling, she seals the edges, and cooks both sides before sliding it onto a plate for me. It’s hot, savory, and enough food for the day!

When I eat dinner on the street or in a café, I order chalupas, a crispy boat layered with white beans, cheese and tomatoes. One day I met my friend Rosario for antiojos (snacks) and ordered sopes, a small, thick tortilla, deep-fried and topped with refried black beans, lettuce, cheese, vegetables, meat and salsa. It’s a finger food, like a tostada, and ideal for snacking at an outdoor café.

On the days when I teach English in Tlacochahuaya, I eat lunch at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca and order a quesadilla, a folded tortilla filled with Oaxacan cheese, sliced tomatoes, and squash flowers. It’s a light meal but hearty enough to carry me through the afternoon class until I return home for la cena, or the late evening snack.

In Oaxaca, we normally eat the plato fuerte, (main meal) at mid-afternoon. Doña Estela keeps many recipes in her head but she rarely repeats a menu. Our platos fuertes include grilled fish, chicken, and pork but always with tortillas. One day we eat memelas, tortillas with fluted edges smeared with bean paste and garnished with cheese, salsa, and onions. The lighter evening meals include sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup) made of chicken broth, shredded carrots, or onion, and served with tortillas.

Tortillas have many permutations depending on what part of Mexico we’re in. When I was a consultant in Guadalajara, I often ate supper on the street at a puesto selling taquitos, small, tortillas. My favorites were called the gringa and consisted of two small tortillas cooked with shredded cheese between them that I rolled up and filled with my choice of meat, salsa, guacamole, and onion.

Tortillas are essential to enchiladas, the less common efrijolada, a soft tortilla dipped in black bean sauce and topped with cheese, onion, and parsley, or the entomatada, a folded tortilla dipped in tomato sauce, garnished with queso fresco, white onions, and parsley. As a snack, I often eat a flauta, a deep-fried, rolled tortilla that looks like an egg-roll filled with cheese or chicken, and topped with cream or guacamole.

And for postre (at the end, or dessert), a favorite is the empanada, a turnover filled with sweet or savory stuffing of sweet potato, yam, or squash flowers, and then baked and topped with a sweet syrup.

Consumption of tortillas in the United States exceeds that of bagels or croissants. Although we expect to see tortillas, along with chips and salsa, as part of the meal in a Mexican restaurant, the tortilla’s significance remains largely unnoticed and unknown among non-Mexicans.

But the tortilla still shines like the sun in Mexico. It plays the leading role at the center of everyday dining. The tlayudas, memelas, chilaquiles, and other forms of the tortilla vary widely from region to region, cultural group to cultural group, and family to family. All are genuine, and variation is part of the tortilla’s virtue. No matter how a corn tortilla is dressed and served, it is still the foundation of a proud culinary heritage. And those who know its history and secrets, are connected – however invisibly – to a past far deeper and richer than any they’ve known before.



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