Suitcase and World: Tortilla.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Corn is the predominant crop farmed in Mexico and corn tortillas are the staple of the Mexican diet. In the northern part of the country, wheat is the major crop so in those regions, wheat tortillas are what you will see on the table.

On this trip, we'll be going south so I'm expecting to see corn tortillas at every meal.

Until my recent trip to Guatemala, the only tortillas - wheat or corn - that I had ever eaten either came from a plastic bag or a Tex Mex restaurant.

Our first morning in Guatemala was spent in Guatemala City, wandering the streets around the bus station. There, we stumbled upon a group of three women making fresh tortillas by hand. We watched them skillfully take golf ball sized pieces of masa and slap them back and forth between their hands to create about a 5" circle. The tortilla was much thicker than I was accustomed to seeing. We bought a small bag and as I opened up the bag of still warm, freshly made tortillas, the scent of fresh corn hit my nose -it was an intoxicating smell. I've never forgotten that smell and I'm hoping that I can find it in Mexico!

Although the history of eating flatbread made from corn dates well back into Mesoamerican times, it was the Spanish who gave it the name "tortilla" even though the Mexican version does not in any way shape or form look anything like the omelets that modern day Spaniards refer to as tortillas.

Masa is the base of the corn tortilla and believe it or not, masa is still made today as it was centuries ago though machines have replaced many of the steps performed by hand.

Back in the day, the Indians used a stone slab called a metate and a pestle to grind the hard whole kernels into meal out of which corn gruel was made but this took a lot of effort. To make things easier, they eventually developed a method of heating the kernels in a mildly corrosive solution of lime until the skins came off. The skinless kernels were called nixtamal, an Aztec word still in use. The nixtamel was then ground and made into masa which may be white, yellow or other colors depending on the color of the corn. 

In some parts of the US, you can get fresh masa from a local mercado. Unfortunately, though I live in a neighborhood that is fairly well populated by Central Americans, I've not been able to find a source of fresh masa. So, I decided I would try to make my own which got me on the learning curve about how masa is transformed from fresh corn.

Thanks to Alton Brown, I have the basic recipe to get started.  Just a matter of getting the ingredients and experimenting.

Making Masa
Step 1 is to get field corn which is the kind that is ground into cornmeal. The stuff we eat is, well, too sweet and in all honesty, has very little corn flavor. If you've never eaten *real* corn or maize, try and find some and then you'll understand why it's so much tastier. Thanks to the internet, I can actually buy field corn on line and surprisingly, it's not expensive!

Step 2 is to get what is called CAL which is calcium carbonate aka slaked lime.  I should be able to get this at my local mercado.  If not, another item to buy online.

Step 3 is to make a solution of lime water and cook the corn until the water comes to a boil.  At that point, the corn is left to soak in the lime solution overnight.

Step 4 is to drain and wash the soaked kernels to remove the excess lime.

Step 5 is to vigorously rub the kernels together, basically *smooshing* the grains of corn protein to soften them.

Step 6 is to use the food processor to grind the kernels into mush.  As much water is added as to make a pliable dough.

And that's it!  Sounds simple.  Definitely something for me to experiment on in the kitchen.

Making a Tortilla 
Once you have the masa made, then all you have to do is roll up golf ball sized pieces of the masa and either hand form them in to the tortilla rounds or use a press. I tried the hand method in Guatemala and it was not as you would think or may I'm just not very coordinated with my hands :-)

I'm planning on hosting a "Guatemalan Street Food" inspired barbeque this coming weekend and home made tortillas on the menu. Just so my guests don't starve waiting for the tortillas, I have bought a Mexican tortilla press.  I think I can handle making tortillas with this gadget at my disposal but then again, I said the same thing about the hand pat-pat-pat method :-)

Ordinarily, I'm not much of a bread eater but for some reason, I can't resist bread made from corn and for me, tortillas are addictive. I'm just glad I'll be doing a lot of walking because I plan on eating my fair share of tortillas while I'm there - especially the ones made from fresh masa!