Tortillas are flat breads made from maize: ‘the knife, fork, plate and napkin’ of Mexico, the staple of the Aztecs and Maya peoples in pre-Columbian times; ‘the rest [of their diet] was sauce’ comments a modern scholar. They developed an ingenious method of softening the dry kernels of corn by soaking and boiling them in lime-water before grinding to a paste. This was called nixtamal and is the raw material of fresh masa, from which tortillas are fashioned. Though freely available in Mexico and Latin America, fresh masa is not often exported. What we can buy is masa harina, the flour obtained by grinding after the masa has been dehydrated. It is not nearly so easy to make tortillas from masa harina as it is from fresh masa. Our efforts will not match the tortillas described by a Spanish conquistador in the 16th century that were prepared for Aztec nobles, ‘so thin and clean they are almost like paper and translucent’.
Though Mexicans may be adept at making tortillas by slapping from one hand to the other, gradually increasing the diameter of the paper-thin disc as they go, the novice will find it less simple. One solution is to use a tortilla press, a small hand device that stamps out acceptable tortillas.
Another is to make tortillas from wheat flour, a speciality of northern Mexico and the south-western states of America. Enthusiasts quote an Indian proverb in their support: ‘After tasting flour tortillas, the children cry for them as a man craves good whiskey.’
© 2005 Tom Jaine. All rights reserved.