8 months ago

What Would a Taco Be Without the Tortilla?

The soul of the taco may be the sauce, but what would one of our favorite dishes be like if it weren’t held together in a firm and secure way? In principle, corn tortillas are no more than a thin disk of cooked corn dough. The secret lies in an ancient technique that you are about to discover: nixtamalization.

Curious Facts: The History of Corn

  • The corn plant, also known as maize, underwent a long process of domestication from its ancestor plant, teocintle. Its origin dates back 5,000 years, according to fossilized specimens found them in Puebla, Mexico and the Guilá Naquitz cave in Oaxaca,Mexico. 
  • As the inhabitants of Mesoamerica migrated, so did the cultivation of corn, giving way eventually to the variety of species that we recognize today, and becoming a main source of sustenance throughout the Americas.
  • According to the Aztecs, the god of ripe corn is Cinteotl, and it is believed that he and his wife, the goddess Chicomecoatl, provide sustenance for humankind. The same is true for the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, the Mayans, and even the Incas in Peru – each honored their respective corn gods.
  • It was Christopher Columbus, in 1492, who brought back an ear of corn from America upon his return to Europe. This is how corn became known throughout the world.
  • The word maize comes from the word mahís in the language of the indigenous Taínos who are native to the Caribbean.

Corn Derivatives: The Tortilla as Protagonist

Nixtamalization: How Corn Becomes a Tortilla 

Neither corn flour nor cornmeal can be used to make tortilla dough because neither has the malleability to hold a shape when mixed with water. For this reason, one of the great contributions of Mesoamerican cultures to the world is the discovery of nixtamalization, which is the process of transforming corn into a much more nourishing and edible food.

By soaking the corn in alkaline water, its protein values increase and the bioavailability of both calcium and niacin is enhanced.

The first step of nixtamalization is to boil the corn kernels in diluted lime water. Once the kernels open, they are left to steep a few hours. Then, the water is changed and the kernels are scrubbed, hulled and rinsed. Finally, the kernels are ground into a smooth paste.   

Thanks to instruments like the metate – a rectangular three-legged slab carved from volcanic rock, used since the Stone Age to grind up all kinds of foods – it becomes possible to prepare the nixtamalized dough. And you can’t use a metate without a metlapil – an oval-shaped roller used to grind the corn.

Tortilla dough must be manageable and cohesive. These qualities are essential for preparing Mexican dishes such as tortillas, tamales, chalupas, sopes, gorditas and others. This is possible thanks to the nixtamalization process.

The Perfect Tortilla: Fresh and Hot

In principle, corn tortillas are no more than a thin disk of this corn masa (dough) cooked up on a hot griddle. And they need to be hot to be good. 

More specifically, when the tortilla comes into contact with the heat of the comal – a round clay disk placed above a fire or heated stones to elevate it from the direct heat – one side becomes firm, while the other retains its characteristic suppleness. Flipping the tortilla over, the steam is trapped inside, causing the uncooked side to expand. 

Now, these fresh, hot tortillas are ready to be filled with a countless number of delicious preparations and then bathed with red or green sauces, depending on the type of chili used.

 Did you know that the average Mexican consumes 135 pounds of tortillas per year?

Nowadays tortillas come in all kinds of sizes. The standard says that the classic tortilla must be at least 6 inches in diameter. There is also a 4-inch tortilla known as the taco tortilla, made especially for tacos. Then, there is the long and tapered tortilla to prepare memelas, and the tlayuda tortilla whose diameter reaches 16 inches. There is even a wheat flour tortilla, widely consumed in the north of Mexico.

Finally, discover why tortillas are considered a superfood...

Superfood: Tortilla Nutrition Facts

Three tortillas (of approximately 35 grams each) offer:

  • 218 calories
  • 81 mg of calcium
  • 186 g of potassium
  • 314 mg of phosphorus
  • 1,498 mg of niacin
  • 2.8 g of protein
  • 6.3 g of fiber
  • 44.6 g of carbohydrates