According to the Mayan creation myths, it took the gods four tries to create humans. They first created deer, birds and other animals. Because these creatures could not speak when the gods called them, they were deemed unworthy and condemned to be eaten. The second creation of the gods was human-like, but made of mud. The mud person spoke without “knowledge or understanding” and soon dissolved back into mud. The third creation was a person carved out of wood. While an improvement because they could walk and talk and procreate, they could not remember their Shaper. As a result, they were destroyed on their own grinding stones. The gods finally got it right when they discovered maize, which became the flesh of mankind and the source of the heavenly food known as tortillas. (adapted from the Lonely Planet Honduras)
If you know me really well, then you know I have a weakness for one food in particular: fresh, handmade corn tortillas.
When we visited Guatemala seven years ago, I was famous for going into comedors (small local eateries) and asking simply for tortillas de maiz (corn tortillas) because they were so damn good and I NEVER got sick from them. The women and girls working there would repeat my order five times to convince themselves that that was all I wanted. It was such an odd request that one woman refused to give me just tortillas. She said I must eat something else with it and suggested a chicken soup. Which I must say, they went quite well with. But then, when you eat a good tortilla it goes well with anything.
Shopping at a local tortilleria
Because of this deep love and respect I have for the tortilla it has been a mission of sorts for me to try and find the best tortillas as we travel in Central America and Mexico.
Why? My first experience with truly amazing tortillas was at a restaurant on Phinney Ridge in Seattle. It was a couple blocks from a house I rented in college and served the most amazing southwestern food. There, tortillas took on a new meaning for me. They were as big as plates and a quarter inch thick. They were hot, steamy, and chewy. Wow! Who knew a tortilla could be all that?
This was followed years later by my experience of tortillas in the highland villages of Guatemala. There the corn was grown on milpas (small plots farmed by a family). When it was to be used for tortillas, the corn kernels were soaked in water and cal (lime) until it mildly fermented over several days. In the home we stayed in Guatemala, the resident parrot would sit on the edge of this vast pot of corn and water, while Tod and I watched in horror – hoping he faced the correct direction when relieving himself.
The hopefully parrot-additive free mix would then boil until the corn was thoroughly cooked. At that time, it was drained and taken to the local molino (grinder) where it was ground into masa, which is a rough paste. This masa would then meet stone under the skilled hands of women using matates, undergoing its final transformation to make it suave (smooth) just like it has been for centuries.
A local lady works the molino in her resteraunt/cocina
Next, came the shaping of the tortilla. Depending on the food culture, they would be patted in hands into small rounds (Guatemala), squashed using a tortilla press (Oaxaca, Mexico) or pressed on plastic guides using hands (Honduras).
In all of these countries, however, the preferred final step was the same: cooking them on a comal. A comal is a ceramic or metal plate set over an open fire. Tortillas cooked this way have a wonderful smoky smell that adds to my delight when consuming them. The downside? It is this method of cooking that is responsible in part for denuding the landsides of villages in every single country we visited. Deforestation from gathering wood to cook with is a major problem on at least two levels.
Cooking over the comal
First, people must walk long distances to gather the bundles of wood to burn. This takes up large portions of their time, especially women and children and removes wood from the forests. Second, the smoke from the fires causes lung cancer in the women cooking over them. Cooking using fire indoors, without a chimney, is obviously not a healthy idea, but that is how it has been done for centuries. In Oaxaca, where indigenous women are living longer due to better medical care, doctors consider lung cancer an epidemic.
Like all costumbres (customs), it is hard to break this method of cooking even when families have access to modern appliances. The indigenous families I met in Oaxaca had propane stove/ovens which they used to make tea, cocoa and rice. The fire still had its revered spot in the yard, where the real cooking took place – making tamales and tortillas. When I asked why they didn’t just use the stove rather than bother with gathering firewood and working in all that smoke they looked puzzled and shook their heads with silent smiles. It was obvious I didn’t understand.
But what I did understand was that these kinds of tortillas were a new personal high for me. They were small (maybe 4 -5 inches around), thick (think .25 inches), and made with yellow corn. I LOVED them and simply could not get enough of them. And really, I am not alone. In Guatemala, a family of eight will normally eat approximately 170 tortillas a day! Talk about not getting enough, that means each person eats seven tortillas per meal todo los dias (everyday).
On this trip, during our mad dash south to Panama we only stayed one night in Guatemala; we knew we’d have three weeks there on the return trip. The hotel owner’s wife was so pleased at my love of Guatemalan tortillas that she gave me a stack of 20 freshly made tortillas gratis (free) for us to take on the road. Needless to say, they didn’t make it that far…which is actually the whole point of tortillas.
You see, the problem with all handmade tortillas is that they don’t last long. Most locals tell me a freshly made tortilla will at most be good for 2-3 days. In the refrigerator, properly wrapped, maybe one or two more days can be gleaned. For this reason alone the armies of women in Central America cook every day vast quantities of this fragile food stuff. I have regularly experienced the anguish of finding my precious handmade tortillas sprouting colonies of unidentifiable life forms in fabulous shades of green, orange and white.
To meet this need for a super tortilla that doesn’t spoil muy rapido (very fast), the food industry has created those tortillas found in supermarkets everywhere. Yes, they are sturdy. Yes, they will live in your fridge or on a shelf for who knows how long. But also yes, they taste more or less like cardboard in my humble opinion.
Are they better than no tortillas? Sure.
But I am in Central America for heaven’s sake…I want the real thing!
Which brings up yet another distinction in the world of tortillas: corn vs. flour. Living in the States and enjoying the ultimate cheapskate meal, the burrito, one gets quite attached to flour tortillas. After all, they are malleable enough to hold vast quantities of beans, rice, steak, salsa, guacamole, and more, all stuffed inside them. Corn tortillas? Forget it. They fall apart when folded into more than a gentle U-shaped taco, meaning they hold significantly less comida (food).
As a result, most folks I know prefer the flour tortilla. When I wax on about the fine qualities of corn tortillas they stare at me as if I’m an alien. I know a secret they don’t, however: that they are missing out on one of life’s finest culinary and nutritional gifts.
Research has even shown that corn tortillas made the traditional way (with cal (lime)), contain significantly higher levels of calcium, B vitamins, and other elemental goodies than flour tortillas. Which makes sense, I suppose, when you consider that entire civilizations thrived for centuries with a food culture centered on corn and its offspring, the tortilla.
So, where is the perfect tortilla?
Angela at the tortilla press in Oaxaca
In Mexico, the tortillas are everywhere and they are fairly good. It has, however, gotten increasingly difficult to find tortillas a mano (by hand) in a public venue– most are made by machines or tortilla presses instead. However, even these are significantly better than what one can buy in the supermercados (supermarkets).
In Oaxaca, my struggle was that they used a white corn to make the tortillas AND a tortilla press. This is not heche a mano (made by hand) in the truest technical sense to me. The white corn made them taste pretty bland and the thin nature of them was disappointing.
I can live with the tortillas in Mexico, however, and eventually found the sister of a cook/cleaning woman for a family living down the road from our camping place in Oaxaca. She made a deep, yellow tortilla that I liked. I have even heard of the elusive azul y rojo (blue and red) tortillas in Oaxaca but must continue my search for them when I return.
In the meantime, I was profoundly disappointed by the lack of tortillas in Panama. Their “tortillas” looked like a round polenta blob. I was too deeply disappointed to even give them a fighting chance. Of course, the other countries of Central America don’t even consider Panama one of their own. Perhaps this is the real reason why?
In Costa Rica, I was floundering with store bought tortillas until I had an authentic, local tortilla experience. We were house-sitting our friend Billy’s place outside Herradura. Think mountains, rivers, a beautiful, fairly tight valley that is high and cool. This region has the highest mountains in Costa Rica and we loved it. Returning from a hike outside the national park (the Alli factor: no dogs allowed), we passed a couple of houses. I saw a small, older woman on the side of the road working and started talking with her. Her first words to me were an apology that she was not educated. After I reassured her that my Spanish was obviously not educated either, we got on quite well. Tod, seeing this was a woman’s thing, quickly escaped back to the house.
Meanwhile, I got the tour and introduction to the family and gardens, followed by special guest treatment. I was served 3 tortillas a mano with coffee on china, with silverware and a cloth napkin. What was weird was that no one sat with me and the living room was dark. They all bustled in the kitchen 20 feet away, as I sat alone in the shadows eating. I kept getting up at odd intervals and going to the kitchen door to tell them how wonderful the tortillas were. They would smile and nod before guiding me back to the guest of honor position….at least that was what I made of it.
So in the rural homes in Costa Rica, folks were still making these fabulous tortillas. We moved through Nicaragua too quickly for me to get a feel for the tortillas there, but given the poverty I am reasonably sure people still make their tortillas there too.
In truth, the simple answer is probably that they are in the small homes of the poor in every single country. It is there where people still make them in the time-honored traditional way. If I really wanted these kinds of tortillas all along the way, I could stop and poke my head into any appropriate-looking shack and ask. And I venture that in such homes in western Panama I might even be able to find them.
It was in Honduras, however, where my personal relationship to tortillas experienced a radical and unexpected shift. And all because of a 13 year old named Nolvia who shares my birthday. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Nolvia and her family live at the Balnerio Paradise, near Lago de Yajoa in central Honduras. It is actually a working shade coffee farm that also sells flowers. Her dad is the manager and her four other siblings have run of the place. A frigid river runs through the property, a mere 100 yards from where we camped for the week that I worked there. It was a delight for the kids to live there as they proudly showed off their knowledge of plants, animals and….tortillas.
Fernando, Henry and the maestra herself: Nolvia
From their initial introduction to Alli, these kids fast became our friends. They are smart, polite, interesting, and great Spanish teachers. Once allowed in the van they would sit and stare and just make “oooo” sounds as they relaxed in the chairs of the van. They LOVED the cocina (kitchen) as it really is kid-sized. With Nolvia, however, it went one step farther.
As I told her how much I loved tortillas, but got frustrated at not being able to find them she simply asked why I didn’t make them. I told her it took too long, and she simply laughed. It doesn’t take long at all she assured me. When I asked how she made them, she said you started with Maseca.
Ahhh, we were dealing with a middle class Honduran family here. Of course, we should have known this when Tod asked Henri, the seven year old, if his mother did laundry in the river as many women we had seen did. Henri gave him an odd look and said “No, she goes to the lavenderia (laundrymat).” Tod looked as sheepish as he felt.
But back to tortillas. Maseca is a store-bought corn flour used as a quick way to make tortillas. I had no idea. However, I did have Maseca on hand for the oddest of reasons. I had bought it to supplement Alli’s diet as she had been on a hunger strike of sorts. She wasn’t eating regularly because the antibiotics for her ear infection upset her stomach. She’s pretty skinny anyway, but a veterinarian we met near the National Park La Tigra (on the other side Honduras) begged me to add it to her food. It was embarrassing having a dog which apparently looked like a starving Honduran street mutt. Alli soon returned to eating just fine and left us driving around with a full bag of Maseca.
But as providence would have it, I could learn to use Maseca the way it was truly meant to be used. Nolvia proudly took over the kitchen, shooing her brothers to the side, and began instructing her pupil in the fine art of tortilla making.
First, you add water and mush it up with your hands to get the right consistency. This masa can easily be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Already we have circumvented the need for corn, cal, boiling, a grinder and the use of heavy, primitive stone tools. This was beginning to look possible.
Next, you work a wad of dough into a flatish disc on your hands.
Then, you take a piece of a plastic grocery bag and cut into so that you get a circle. These are your guides that the disc of masa goes on.
Now to the most difficult part: shaping the tortillas. Yes, they make it look easy. Nolvia was such a skilled expert. Her brothers would laugh as I struggled to make the sacred circle. When I finally got it right, there would be shouts of approval from them.
Lastly, we cook it. Using our cast iron trivet or pan, we place it on our propane gas stove. This actually takes skill as the transfer can easily break up the fragile disc. I broke several initially, and still do on occasion. When this happened, you would hear audible intakes of breath, a hushed silence, followed by a simple shoulder shrug. With the words “no hay problema” (there is no problem), Nolvia would smile and we would squish up the dough to start over.
It’s all in the wrist
Each side is cooked once, then the first side is cooked again with you poking it with your fingers to try to get it to balloon up with air. When it did this, the kids would squeal with delight.
After the transfer to the plate, I would high five Nolvia and her brothers and she would yell “Muy rico” (very rich, delicious) followed by her brothers chanting those same words. With that, we would start anew.
This was the first of our many van cooking classes that took place after I worked with clients during the day. I also learned to make frijoles fritos (refried beans: they were shocked at my addition of onions and garlic but we love it), limonada (a lime juice with sugar, very refreshing, from limes I gathered with the kids), and flour tortillas (much more involved, but yummy).
To be honest, I have since given up the need for shaping my corn tortillas into perfect rounds. A round-ish shape is what we usually eat these days. It is certainly sacreligous on some level, but I hail from eastern Washington not America de Central so it I think the gods will forgive me. Still, please don’t tell Nolvia!
The result of this profound new life skill is that my relationship to tortillas has changed.
While I don’t think the maseca-made tortillas are quite as rich tasting or nutritious as the ones made the old-fashioned way, I love being able to make a couple for each meal. Unlike the traditional families, we each usually eat just two per meal. And now I understand the silent smiles from my indigenous friends in Oaxaca. Tortillas imbued with the wood smoke of the comal have a flavor that propane stove “smoke” just can’t match.
Nonetheless, these tortillas I make are one hundred million times better than the store bought variety and I don’t have the tortillas-turned-science-project issue. I also don’t feel as helpless as I used to when we ran out of tortillas, wondering where the next good tortilla could be found and how the hell was I going to get there.
The finished product!
Big road trips are a curious thing. You start out with certain goals in mind, but are constantly astonished by what you learn about yourself and the world. Perhaps this was one of the unconscious forces behind this trip in the first place…to become the tortilla maker rather than just the buyer. I’ll never really know.
But according to Tod, with this newly acquired skill I am now the perfect wife. While I doubt the veracity of that statement (the men and women of Central America argue I must give him a baby first), I do find his other piece of wisdom rings true:
You find the perfect tortilla within yourself.