19 Nov 2001

Finally, the gods found the matter to create the bodies of the first men: corn. Four were the persons created and only corn was used for their bodies. (Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Mayans).

Corn has been the basic element of the Mexican diet for over 5,000 years and an indispensable ingredient in Mexican cooking. The native Mexicans considered it a gift from the gods and all indigenous cultures worshipped a god of corn.
In the Mexican diet, corn has many uses, but undoubtedly the most important one is to make tortillas. Even the poorest Mexican eats tortillas, sometimes his only source of nourishment. Tortillas substitute for bread in Mexican tables, and for centuries they have substituted for spoons too, since they are cut in half, folded and used to scoop up beans or rice, or rolled up with a filling and eaten as finger food.
Tortillas are mentioned in the Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of the New Spain) by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, which was written around 1568, when describing the meals served to emperor Montezuma: ‘tortillas were brought by maidens and they were presented in white napkins’.
Every day around noon a long queue forms in front of the tortillerias. Lunch to a peasant in the country or a worker in the city usually consists of hot tortillas filled with chile, maybe beans or cheese and rolled up. The filling may vary or be nonexistent, but the tortilla is indispensable. Housewives also stand in line to bring tortillas home for the midday meal, which in Mexico is the main meal of the day.
The fast pace of today’s life is changing this tradition. Cold tortillas are available in supermarkets, and although they are not as good as the freshly made ones, people sacrifice the taste for the convenience of buying tortillas sold in a plastic bag, with added preservatives to make them last for many days. There is no comparison between these and freshly made tortillas and, for a change, it is the lower income people who enjoy the best tortillas, since they don’t mind waiting in line to buy them. Good quality tortillas have a right side and a wrong side: the right side, which has a thin skin that puffs up when heated, should be the inside a rolled tortilla.

The basis of tortillas is masa a dough which is traditionally made in a Molino de Nixtamal (a corn dough mill). The masa</I is made by using only three ingredients: water, lime and dried corn. The corn is soaked for 24 hours in a lime-based solution. The following day the water is drained and the corn is ground in a mill. Corn tortillas do not contain gluten, are low in fat and contain calcium, potassium and fiber.
The masa is then sent to the tortillerias, where tortillas are made and sold. It is sad to consider that this millenary way of making tortillas is in danger of extinction. Both the mills and the tortillerias are slowly disappearing threatened by industrially produced corn flour and the proliferation of manufacturers that sell them in supermarkets.
Tortillas are still made by hand in some households, but the invention of mechanical tortilla machines made this task faster and easier, while preserving the same quality. Tortillas never go to waste: leftover tortillas are dried to make tostadas or tortilla chips or are used to feed the animals. Tortillas are one of the most versatile ingredients in Mexican cuisine: they can be fried, grilled, baked or heated in a microwave.
Tortillas are more popular today in the United States than all other ethnic breads, such as bagels, English muffins and pitas. About 75 billion tortillas were sold last year, not counting tortilla chips, and the numbers keep growing.

Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula

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