Think you’re making ‘real corn tortillas’? Think again.
Think you're making 'real corn tortillas'? Think again.
Since getting into the tortilla business, a line we often hear from people is, “Oh, I make proper tortillas at home.” Whilst it’s great to see people so committed to Mexican food, I must admit, every time I hear this I get a little saddened by what’s at stake. Although I admire their dedication to doing it ‘properly’, the fact is that in most cases they’re not. Why is this a problem you ask? Because at stake here is a millennia-old culinary tradition.
There’s more to tortilla-making than most people think.
I’ve made my own corn tortillas at home. It’s hard work. It takes nearly 24 hours and builds up a lot of arm muscle grinding the corn grains down to create masa (corn dough). This is how it has been done in the villages of Mexico for centuries and it’s definitely not for anyone wanting a quick and easy midweek meal! I did it as part of the research and testing needed in opening La Tortillería, and also because I’m a diehard tortilla fan and wanted genuine authentic corn tortillas for my tacos. Simply put: making tortillas at home from scratch is not at all easy.
However, a quick Google search for ‘How to make your own corn tortillas’ will have you believe it’s a piece of (packet-mix) cake. Tutorials will tell you to buy a bag of masa harina, mix it with water to make a dough, press and cook your tortillas, and you’re done. This is akin to a tutorial on how to make ‘home-made mash potato’ that tells you to buy a packet of instant mash potato powder, mix it with water, and voilà, you’ve made your very own mash potato!
Nixtamalization is how real corn tortillas are made.
In reality, the traditional way to make corn tortillas – the way it has been done since around 1200 BC by Mesoamericans – is far more intricate and delicious. It’s an artisan skill that to this day is passed down from generation to generation in tortilla-making families. It involves cooking and then soaking whole corn kernels in limewater. It’s a process called nixtamalization, and it transforms the grains by releasing their bound nutrients. The soaked grains are then stone ground to form a wet-dough (or masa), before being pressed and cooked on a comal. No dry flour (corn or otherwise) is involved anywhere in the traditional tortilla-making process. The pre-Hispanic Aztecs and Mayans would have no idea what to do with a bag of masa harina.
But you can’t blame enthusiastic home cooks for thinking tortillas are made by just mixing water into industrialised tortilla flour. After all, they’re being taught exactly this from many high-profile chefs that have failed to do their research. Various cooking shows, recipe books from celebrity chefs, and menus of top Mexican restaurants erroneously sell the idea that making authentic corn tortillas from scratch involves using tortilla flour. Across the world you find people who should know better but are complicit in eroding this culinary tradition by misinforming others.
Why is ‘real tortilla-making’ so important?
You may be wondering if it matters which way we make our tortillas. Isn’t this just culinary snobbery, or the preaching of another foodie-fad? No. Our concern is born out of something much deeper. Growing corn and making tortillas is an integral part of the fabric of Mexican cultural identity, society, biodiversity and economy. As Mexico’s main staple, both now and millennia ago, any changes to corn tortilla making has flow-on effects, substantial ones.
Promulgating the message that tortillas are made out of masa harina feeds an industry that is eroding the biodiversity of corn species, monopolising the corn industry and threatening the livelihoods of small scale farmers and traditional tortilleros (tortilla makers). Not to mention that it is adversely affecting millions of peoples’ health in terms of offering a more processed and less nutritious alternative to traditional tortillas. And it contributes to the dishonouring of the main staple of a cuisine so diverse, rich and ancient that it has been awarded UNESCO world heritage protection. But most of all my concern with people believing they make tortillas the ‘proper’ way, is the largely shared misinformation of the craft, and the unintentional lack of respect paid to the hardworking women and men (but mostly women) who actually do make tortillas the proper way.
Mexican livelihoods, traditions and cultural heritage are at risk.
Between us, Gerardo and I have lived and/or travelled in over 20 states of Mexico, and have seen first-hand, many times, the hard work that goes into making authentic corn tortillas (actually making them properly from scratch that is). We’ve met with nixtamal tortilla makers fighting to preserve this important culinary heritage and protect their livelihoods, their heirloom seeds and their traditional independent farming practices. We’ve met activists like Rafael Mier from Fundación Tortilla who fight against the processed tortilla flour industry and help raise awareness of the benefits of real tortillas. We’ve tasted authentic corn tortillas across Mexico, made from corn grains of every hue: blue, white, yellow, red, even green. It breaks our hearts to see the ancient tradition of tortilla-making eroded by industrialised shortcut methods, and observe the flow-on effects this has on agricultural sovereignty, biodiversity, culinary heritage and public health.
We are not alone in our heartbreak. Diana Kennedy, a doyen in preserving Mexican culinary heritage, is likewise saddened and angry by this, as she expresses in the article: “You’re Eating Fake Tortillas, and Diana Kennedy Is Pissed About It”. The unfortunate truth is that tortilla flour tortillas are threatening to take over, fuelled by mass-marketing from multi-national food companies with deep pockets proclaiming a message that tortillas made from their industrialised tortilla flour are healthier and better. The result? Traditional tortillerías close down and you have a new generation, both inside and outside Mexico, believing that this is the way tortillas are, and always have been, made.
Support those making corn tortillas the authentic way.
But we get it. We live in a busy modern world and spending five hours a day grinding corn on a metate is borderline ridiculous for most of us. So make your tortillas from tortilla flour if you must, but do so with an understanding of what you’re actually doing: using a modern short-cut technique to save time, and not making tortillas in the original, authentic way. Or better yet, buy your tortillas from tortillerías who are fighting to keep this traditional culinary method alive. And as a bonus, your taste buds and health will thank you for it.
And, if you value authenticity and quality, be wary of any Mexican restaurant that claims they ‘make their own corn tortillas from scratch’ when they have no molino (stone mill) or whole corn grains anywhere in sight. That is a telltale sign the restaurant lacks some basic 101 Mexican food knowledge.
Celebrate Mexican cuisine and culture.
The craft of corn tortilla making is integral to Mexican cultural identity. It deserves to be respected and celebrated for what it is. As fellow tortilleros, we feel a responsibility to help curb this trend back to its original roots. Not as a way to cling to the past, or to keep Mexican cuisine locked into its pre-modern state for people to romanticise and dish up on menus at trendy restaurants, but in a way that truly serves Mexico, and the reputation of Mexican food, for the better. This is for the nutrition of the people, for a more localised sustainable food system, to bring back control of corn production and pricing into the hands of the farmers, and so campesinos can continue to be the custodians for the more than 200 varieties of corn seeds, many endemic to their region and in serious threat of extinction.
Our tortillería may be on the other side of the world, but by making tortillas from scratch, the authentic nixtamal way, and by aiming to set the record straight as to how corn tortillas are properly made, we are helping to preserve this millennia-old culinary tradition and give it the respect it deserves. This is why we get out of bed each day and do what we do, one tortilla at a time.