Mexico Trek!   guidebook MEXICO GUIDEBOOK: Food
A quintessential Mexican food, the tortilla takes some serious work and time to manufacture. Maybe the least heart-breaking recommendation I can pass along is for you to hunt in your basic "ethnic food store" for a bag of processed corn meal by either of the labels "Masaharina"(TM) or "Maseca" (TM) (actually, if there is any sort of Mexican population where you live, you may not need to look beyond the Mexican foods section of your regular grocery store), then follow the instructions on the bag. However, I can almost guarantee that the first few times you go through the procedure your tortillas will be less than satisfactory. Mexican women who make their own tortillas (these days, this is mostly in rural areas) go through an apprenticeship that lasts for years, beginning as little girls, to learn how to make a truly fine tortilla. For what it's worth though, we've found that Maseca flour usually gives the best results in terms of consistence and flavor (products made with Masaharina tend to go stale and rancid sooner, indicating that the oil content of this flour must be higher than Maseca's).

What to do if you really want to make tortillas from scratch. If you were truly to begin from scratch, you'd get some white corn grain and set it to low boil in a covered pot with some slaked lime or wood ashes. You can get this in Mexican open-air markets by asking for "cal," or "tequisquite." Much of the language employed to talk about corn, tortillas, and the process of making tortillas, is based on the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and I'll mention these terms as we go along. (For definitions of some words, check the Glossary below.) The process described above will loosen the "skins" (pericarp) of the kernels, and you'd find most of these skins floating at the top of the steep liquor next morning. This alkaline solution has the side effect of making bound niacin in the corn endosperm soluble, and therefore available as a nutrient (this is important to folks who depend on corn as their staple source of nutrients; in Mexico annual per capita consumption of tortillas is about 410 lb., or as you can see, a little over 1 lb. per day, and in rural areas it is estimated that tortillas provide about 70% of the caloric intake). You would discard the supernate and the steep liquor itself (called "nejayote"), then wash the remaining "naked" kernels (consisting mostly of pure starch) and embryos ("germs," where most of the oil is concentrated). However, if you wanted to avoid this whole process and start from this point on, you could look for 'hominy' in your local grocery store, since this is precisely what hominy is.

Next, you'd get hold of a grinding stone utensil (known in Mexico as 'metate,') and you'd begin slaving over the corn grain with a pestle and a jug of water by your side. In the course of grinding the grain you're homogenizing and gelatinizing the starch, protein and germ, and also somewhat dehydrating it; however, you must add water continuously to make the resulting mixture pliable. When you are done, you'll have a dough that you will work into small balls from which you'll shape your tortillas. These spheres are known as "testales." This step takes between half an hour to an hour, depending on how many tortillas you are making. If you would want to dispense with this step, then use the Maseca flour mentioned above. This is essentially the dough in dehydrated state, ready for you to rehydrate and shape your tortillas.

Shaping and cooking the tortilla is a key step, and the one where the greatest skill is involved. What you are trying to do is create as thin and round a patty of the dough as possible. As you work it, you will be further dehydrating the mixture. The trick is to lose only so much water in this step and in the next, which involves baking both sides of the tortilla for 30 to 60 seconds on a hot griddle, so that the resulting product has a specific water content when done (about 40% moisture, which is crucial), making it soft and pliable. The tortilla should puff as you bake it, but if air bubbles form in the dough as it bakes, or if is too wet and pasty, or too dry and burns, or is toasted as it bakes, then the resulting tortilla is ruined. As you can imagine, Indian women who mass-produce tortillas three times a day don't stop to think about baking time or moisture content, they have simply developed the knack to know when the dough is ready and how much baking to allow. Also, it is no easy matter to form a round tortilla in the limited amount of time you have between grinding/kneading the dough, patting it out, and having to lay it on the griddle before it dries excessively.

Experienced Indian women in Mexico are a wonder to watch as they do this using nothing but their hands (no flat surface) as they pat out perfect circles between their palms. If you wanted to avoid this step, then you'd go buy a "tortilla press," which is a couple of round metal or wooden sheets that you press by means of a lever. You place a doughball on one of the sheets, press, then cut off the dough extruded from the press, leaving a round sheet of dough inside the press; OR you could go buy 'industrial tortillas' in the frozen foods section of your grocery store.

There is no industrial tortilla that can compare with the freshly baked and ready-to-eat article, as you might expect. To facilitate the mechanization of the process, a number of compromises are made. Most industrial processes begin with a flower base such as Maseca, create large batches of the dough, pass it through rollers to create the flattened cake, then actually cut out a perfectly round tortilla, which is then paraded through several series of conveyor belts, passing through an oven, and then open ventilated space to allow for cooling and water loss, before packing in plastic bags which are then frozen and shipped. The weak link in the whole process is that tortillas don't last in storage and lose their flavor in a hurry when aged/frozen. The main reason is that their oil content leads to them becoming sour, and the freezing process used in the US leads to water condensation on the tortillas themselves, which always makes them pasty and mushy when you try to use them again at room temperature. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal (May 10, 1996) indicated that the world market for tortillas is worth about $5 billion U. S. According to this article, even though Mexicans consume about 10 times as many tortillas per capita as U. S. consumers, the Mexican tortilla market is still dominated by small "tortillerias." In Mexico, packaged tortillas account for only 5 percent of sales. However, large flour-producing industries, such as Maseca and Bimbo, are predicting that "the end of tortilla subsidies in Mexico will transform the Mexican market, giving an advantage to U.S.-style marketing of plastic-bagged tortillas in supermarkets."

Now then, let's say that you've either made or purchased your tortillas and are ready to make your enchiladas. This is a dish whose name means that you've "chilified" some tortillas. "Chili" is derived from the Aztec name for what you call a "chile pepper," the fruit of various species of plants of the genus Capsicum. Following is a recipe for enchiladas that I give with some hesitation. It was collected from rural Indian women near the vicinity of Puebla, Mexico, and the instructions are sparce and most useful for cooks of whom great familiarity with Mexican cooking can be assumed.

(From: Recetario de Maiz, Colegio de Postgraduados, CEICADAR, 1990. Translated by The Odyssey.)

Enchiladas Rojas
Red Enchiladas


  • 18 tortillas
  • 8 dried red chilis (chile ancho, translator's note: Capsicum annum)
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1.5 cups cheese (translator's note, in the US, try Monterrey Jack or Muenster)
  • 2 pepper seeds (translator's note: black pepper, or Piper nigrum)
  • 1 stick cinammon
  • 2 cloves
  • Radishes to suit
  • 1 lettuce head
  • Cooking oil
  • Salt to suit
    Dice onion and shred cheese
    Clean and rinse chiles, grind together with clove, cinammon, garlic, pepper and salt.
    Fry tortillas and dip in sauce prepared above, fill with cheese, roll, stack on tray and garnish with lettuce.
    (Of course, if you wanted to dispense with the trouble, you could go buy frozen enchiladas in the frozen foods section of your grocery store, and then you are time ahead, but culinary experience far, far behind.)



  • 4.25 pecks of white corn (Translator's note: 5 "maquilas")
  • 100 grams (Translator's note: about 3.5 oz) limestone

  • Metate (Translator's note: stone mortar and pestle)
  • Tortilla press (Translator's note: Anyone can make a tortilla this way)
  • Plastic sheets of slightly larger diameter than tortilla press
  • Griddle
    Cook corn in a can or pot with water and limestone (Translator's note, this takes hours, and is typically left overnight)
    When the corn skins can be peeled remove from fire and add more water.
    Cover and allow to "steam cook.
    Rinse corn and grind to make dough.
    Mix well and make small dough balls. Place on tortilla press between plastic sheets to avoid sticking. Press tortilla and bake on griddle.
    Turn twice and remove when "puffed."


    Now then, if you're going to be looking at recipes involving tortillas, there are a number of words that are certain to come up. Following is a basic lexicon to help you understand these:

    TORTILLA - Name given by Spaniards to the corn-based flat-bread they found in use in Mexico. This literally means "smallish and flattened," (for instance, it is what a Spaniard would call an egg omelette). Native names differed, but in three major languages it was: TLAXCALLI (Nahuatl, the Aztec tongue), YET (Zapotec), WEJ (Maya).

    CENTLI - Nahuatl for "corn." Ordinal number meaning literally "first," ETL (bean) is second, etc. Used as particle when distinguishing varieties of corn (as in cacahuaCENTLI, tepeCENTLI, etc.)

    METATE - From Nahuatl "Metatl." Stone mortar used to grind corn. Made from basaltic stone. It turns out to be an essential part of the tortilla making process for a number of reasons. One is that as a soft volcanic stone, the basalt wears easily and actually helps to disrupt ungelatinized starch by becoming part of the dough, in small minute particles. This is so essential for the making of good dough that even in modern industria processes, the corn is ground with basaltic stone grinders. Second, this incorporated basaltic stone is thought to account for the excellent dental health and hygiene shown by Indians, whose teeth are cleaned abrasively as they eat tortillas

    NIXTAMAL - The "naked" corn grains, or "hominy" remaining after removing kernel skins in alkaline bath.

    NEJAYOTE - The steep liquor in which corn grains are bathed to remove skins.

    TONEUHCAYOTL - From Nahuatl: "our flesh," the dough made from the ground corn, known also by Spanish name "MASA." Reflecting both tha this was the common starting point for a number of essential staple foods (tortillas, tamales, etc.), and also the belief that human beings were made by the gods from corn dough (which I personally find more flattering than being made of dirt, as the myth of another small tribe elsewhere would have us believe.

    TESTAL - From Nahuatl: "testalli," the dough ball from which tortillas are patted out.

    COMAL - From Nahuatl: "comalli," the clay or metal griddle on which tortillas are baked.

    TENATE - From Nahuatl: "tenatl," the basket made from woven dried leaves that is used to keep tortillas warm after baking and before consumption.


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