The creation story of the Maya recorded in the Popol Vuh explains how the gods created man in a sort of trial and error kind of creation. The first attempt consisted of mud men which resulted in mindless creatures with no strength that were easily dissolved in water. So then the gods tried wood men. This type of being was stronger but lacked that infinitesimal spark the gods were looking for. After much discussion, the gods crafted humans from a mixture of yellow and white corn. Finally, this was a being with strength, intelligence and agility. Thus the race of humans was born.
Being people of the corn, maize has a sacred place in Mexican culture. Maize was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley in south-central Mexico. Mexico is home to more than 2,000 identified varieties of native corn and has the oldest varieties found in any place in the world.
Is it any surprise that the corn tortilla remains an essential part of the Mexican diet?
The name tortilla comes from the word tlaxcalli in Náhuatl which comes from the longer word tlaxcalli tlán. The place nameTlaxcala means “the place of the tortilla” maybe giving some insight on where the tortilla was first developed. In Maya, tortillas are called waaj. In Totonaco, chaw. In Mixteco, ndíta. In Zapoteco, eta or gueta. In Otomi, hme. In Rarámuri, remeke.
Although there are now tortillerias (places that manufacture tortillas) where tortillas are machine pressed, it’s still possible to find delicious hand-pressed tortillas in a variety of colors wherever you are in Mexico. (See Tortilleria)
Making tortillas by hand is a very time-consuming process.
First, the dried corn is removed from the cob. It is possible to buy bags of corn and skip this step, though.
The corn is then sifted to remove stones and dirt, then poured high so that the wind takes any chaff left over.
Next corn is then boiled until soft with lime and the husks removed.
The softened and peeled corn is then milled. Many tortillerias offer this service as hand grinding with a metate takes much longer .
The resulting doughy mix is called masa. Masa can be used for a variety of other delightful culinary treats which I’ll talk about in another post. (See Tamales)
For tortillas, the dough is formed into small balls and then pressed flat. The now flattened result is transferred to the comal (heated flat pan) and toasted on one side, then flipped to be toasted briefly on the other. The finished product is removed and stacked.
There is a cara (face) to the tortilla which should be eaten that side up. I have yet to mastered being able to determine which side is the cara, but my son and husband have no problem, often flipping the tortilla before eating so that it is right side up. In the event that your taco is put together wrong, you might hear “le ponen los cuernos” (literally to put on the horns). This refers to the belief that in the event of an upside down taco, the preparer will be betrayed by his or her romantic partner. Hmm, maybe I’d better try a little harder to get that taco right side up.
Tortillas come in a variety of colors mostly based on the type of corn used for the masa. When we went to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, our delicious quesadillas were made from blue corn. I’ve also seen where tortillas can be made from cactus but haven’t had the pleasure of a taste of those yet.