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The Mexican Tortilla

Traditional Mexican Food

Mexican Tortilla. The tortilla is a versatile and popular bread substitute and its popularity in both Mexico and the US is unquestionable.

The first tortillas discovered date back to nearly 10,000 BC. There are corn tortillas and wheat tortillas and both are very common in Mexico. Tortillas are Mexico’s most cherished food since, for many, it is the pan de cada día. A tortilla is a type of bread made from finely ground wheat flour or corn with the corn. Tortillas used to accompany or create, normally with some form meat for creating Mexican dishes like tacos, burritos and chilaquiles. They have been eaten all around Mexico for thousands of years, and are continuing to grow in popularity with an increasing demand for Mexican food in America, Europe and Asia. In the US tortilla production is a billion dollar industry that has surpassed bagels and muffins in popularity second only to sliced bread.

Maize Tortillas

The Maya were important consumer of corn, eating it in every way, shape and form. There is a Maya legend that says that tortillas were created by a farmer that wanted to make something to eat for his king. There is archeological evidence that corn tortilla production goes back thousands of years and was a staple in the native diet. When Hernán Cortés reached today's Mexico City, he found that in the many squares and markets many venders selling corn and a corn flatbread. The name of this flatbread that the Aztecs produced was a Nahuatl word called tlaxcalli. The Spanish later named them tortillas (little cakes). Upon further exploration, the Spanish would soon find the incredible variety of dishes using corn as the base for many dishes including tamales and stews.

To produce the corn flour the corn must be processed very differently than its wheat counterpart. The process known as Nixtamalization is a process that involves soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution, usually a lime solution, to remove the skins. The term for this process originates from the Nahuatl nixtamalli which is the name given to the finished product of this process. Nixtamalization is also the term given to any process which uses an alkali solution to remove the pericarp, or fruit layer, of any grain. After having gone through this process and being ground into flour, water is added and dough is produced. After being flattened by hand or machine, the dough is placed on a camal or griddle and cooked briefly on both sides. Today, this process has become highly industrialized and handmade tortillas are more difficult to encounter except in the smallest of villages.

Wheat or Flour Tortillas

Tortillas are not only made from corn flour, in northern Mexico and the US wheat or flour tortillas are very popular and more common in the daily diet with respect to corn tortillas. These tortillas became popular due to the availability of lower cost and lower quality flour available in border markets and warehouses. To make flour tortillas water and some form of fat is needed like vegetable oil or lard is needed along with water. This simple mixture produces flat bread with a smoother and slightly rubbery texture that is very different from its corn cousin. This type of tortilla is ideal for making burritos or wraps.  

The tortilla is a versatile and popular bread substitute and its popularity in both Mexico and the US is unquestionable. In fact, the tortilla is now so ingrained in American cuisine that it is not considered an "ethnic" food anymore. It should also be noted that popularity of this type of food in Central America where tortillas are found (although slightly different in thickness and composition) as well as variations on the corn tortilla like the chenga and pupusa from El Salvador or the baleada from Honduras.