The story behind tortillas

24 September, 2019 by
Madeline Woolway

Head chef of Chupacabra Evan White says “there’s nothing more culturally defining than bread”. The same sentiment is echoed in tortillas, which have long been at the centre of debates about what is and what isn’t ‘authentic’ Mexican.

In fact, the origins of wheat and corn tortillas reveal an abundance of information about the food and culture of Mexico. “Corn tortillas are the original tortilla,” says White. “Corn comes from Central America, while wheat was an introduced species. There’s a big difference between the two.”

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Although wheat tortillas are a feature of northern Mexican fare, those made from corn are more pervasive throughout the country.

In Australia, it’s the other way round, which is something Gerardo Lopez from Melbourne’s La Tortilleria hopes to change. When Lopez met his business partner Diana Hull, they decided to open a Mexican restaurant. “We needed authentic corn tortillas — that’s what would make or break the restaurant,” says Lopez. “At the time, neither of us really knew what that meant, so I told Diana to go to Mexico and find the best corn tortillas.”

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Three months into the trip, Hull called to say the pair would need to use the process of nixtamal to make authentic tortillas with corn.

The early peoples of the Mexican regions relied heavily on plants for their diet, first domesticating teosinte, a wild grass that is the ancestor of corn. Some 10,000 years ago, people in the area began selectively breeding the grain in order to cultivate a plant with multiple, large kernels.

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Under the right conditions, corn is nutritious. However, it needs to be processed in a specific way to unlock one important amino acid — niacin. Nixtamalisation was the process developed by indigenous Mexican people looking for ways to make the grinding of corn kernels easier.

The method not only unlocks nutrients, it results in tortillas that are wholly different in flavour and texture to their wheat counterparts, which were only produced after Europeans introduced wheat to Mexico.

There’s no consensus as to how the process was discovered, however, Lopez points to the use of limestone during grinding as a potential starting point. Originally a seasonal crop, corn was dried and stored for the winter, reconstituted through boiling before being ground into a paste.

“At the time, corn was mashed between two stones,” says Lopez. “They started adding wood ashes to make the corn softer. “There’s nothing more culturally defining than when they used specific stones to grind the kernels: lime.”

Limestone was eventually added straight into water during the boiling process, and the same method still exists today. However, the pressures of industrialisation have resulted in mass-produced tortillas that bypass much of the nixtamal process.

But Lopez says there’s been a noticeable return to ancient ways in recent years. “When I was growing up, most of the tortillas were industrialised corn flour tortillas,” he says. “There was a need to do Mexican food without all the labour, so they created this tortilla flour that uses the nixtamalisation process but then they put in additives and preservatives to make the tortillas last longer and stay soft.

“Growing up in Mexico, I could get mass-produced tortillas or I could get tortillas from indigenous people. I didn’t know the process behind them — it wasn’t talked about. When I went back to Mexico a couple of months ago, I was surprised to see nixtamal coming back.”

La Tortilleria also run a tortilla-producing factory, where Lopez and his team are promoting a return to tradition. Australian corn is harvested and cooked in an alkaline solution made with lime (calcium carbonate, not the fruit). Kernels are soaked overnight in the lime solution which releases nutrients and softens the kernels before they are rinsed and ground in a molino (mill) using volcanic stone from Mexico.

It’s an artisanal process that results in masa, an earthy-tasting dough that forms the backbone of every regional Mexican cuisine. Masa is ubiquitous throughout Mexico. “From masa, you can make gorditas, sopes and panuchos,” says White. “It’s like in Italy, if you go 30km in any direction, you start seeing totally different things. But all these things are corn-based — it all starts with masa. If you make it into a little ball, push your thumb into it and cook it on the flat top, it becomes a sope. You can take that little ball, put a bit of meat in the middle and fry it to make a gordita.”

In some areas, Lopez says masa is rolled into dumpling-like balls and added to soup — the uses are almost endless, but the tortilla is the most recognisable product.

Corn tortillas are incorporated into various regional cuisines in different ways. “In Oaxaca, there are tlayudas, which is like Mexican pizza,” says Lopez. “It’s a huge tortilla.”

There are myriad taco variations found around the country, with each region offering different fillings and even preparations, from tacos dorados to tostadas. “Tortillas are a staple,” says Lopez. “[In Mexico], the consumption per family is about a kilo per day.”

When Lopez opened La Tortilleria restaurant, the aim was to show Australians what ‘real’ Mexican food was. “There is a lot of consumption of wheat tortillas, too, but corn tortillas are of official value in the culture.”

Although wheat flour tortillas have dominated the Australian market in the past, Lopez is hopeful about the future of corn tortillas. “Last year, we manufactured 9 million tortillas,” he says. “At the moment, 70 per cent of the tortillas we produce go to wholesale and restaurants and 30 per cent go to retail — but that’s changing.”

There’s still work to be done, though. “In Australia, we’ve never really gotten our heads around it,” says White. “We’re used to wheat tortillas, but there are differences. Wheat tortillas are similar to a Middle Eastern flatbread. I find them more pliable, whereas corn tortillas are a little crisp when you cook them. You can wrap them or put them in a basket and let them steam — wheat tortillas become mush if you do that.”

Just like Mexican cuisines evolved to include wheat tortillas, Lopez hopes Australian venues will become more creative in the way they use corn tortillas.

“There’s a shift of Mexican restaurants moving from wheat to corn tortillas,” he says. “But it would be great to see other places embrace them. There are so many cafés using tortillas in breakfast dishes and pubs [making] tacos. We’re seeing a shift.”

This story originally appeared in Hospitality February issue. Subscribe here.