blue corn quesadilla

Tortillerías Today

In Correspondents Around the World by Mark MaskerLeave a Comment

Share this PostEmail this to someoneShare on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on Reddit0

Writing and Photos by José C. Marmolejo

Not all tortillas are created equal. Some are made with native corn, some with genetically modified corn, some are made with masa from industrialized corn, some are made from nixtamalized corn, and to complicate it a bit more, some are made with combinations of all of the above.

Blue corn quesadilla

Blue corn quesadilla

The lowest priced tortillas in Mexico will be found in places where they use 100% industrialized corn. Economies of scale make this possible and food colorants can make them blue to serve an ever growing market of people who live in a hurry and ignore how tortillas were made two generations ago. These tortillas cost about $0.30 USD a pound and are commonly found in supermarkets. Needless to say, I stay away from such products.
Metate and native corn

Metate and native corn

The most common masa found in conventional tortillerías in Mexico today is a mix of 50% of masa made with industrialized corn flour and 50% masa ground from nixtamalization, a process through which corn is treated with lime and hot water, later to be washed and hulled to be finally stone ground. This mix does not produce the quality—flavor and texture—of tortillas that otherwise could be obtained from masa 100% from nixtamalization. However, the search for balance between quality and economic efficiency results in the most common mass production model found in Mexico. Market price is about $0.35 USD a pound. I would purchase these tortillas when my time is limited and parking space is available, some sort of an emergency situation I would say.
typical tortillería setup

Typical tortillería setup

As strange as it may appear to a foreigner, it’s normal to see in a conventional tortillería in Mexico a salt shaker and at times, a small container with salsa next to a scale. The purpose of this set up is to provide instant gratification to those wanting to enjoy a freshly made hand-burning tortilla before it gets packed. The tortilla will be dutifully sprinkled to taste with salt and dressed with salsa by the customer, rolled up and directed to his mouth on the spot. This pleasure is available to those who volunteer—or not—to go pick up the tortillas and are willing to wait in line at a tortillería rush hour.
Blue corn totillas almost ready

Blue corn totillas almost ready

When time allows it, I walk to a not so close tortillería—where no parking is available—that utilizes 100% nixtamalized corn, this is the best bang for your buck. Aside from flavor, these tortillas remain “fresher” over several days period and you can tell because when they get reheated they remain “elastic” and when folded do not break. After flavor, this is the most desirable characteristic. By the way, last time I visited this shop, they had a plastic bag with salt instead of a shaker and no salsa. I asked why and they said, “Someone stole the salt shaker.” They weren’t happy.
Molcajete and native corn 2

Molcajete and native corn

One hundred percent native corn and nixtamalized masa is what street vendors use to create quesadillas, tlacoyos, gorditas, sopes, among the infinite corn products made with varieties grown by small farmers; blue corn being the most sought after in Central Mexico. This masa is produced away from the urban areas and brought daily to cities to be sold as breakfast and lunch antojitos. Notwithstanding the low price, the added value that the preparation provides makes this an attractive endeavour for the small street vendors and keeps the supply chain alive.

In the meantime, chefs and environmentalists are doing their part in the food arena. The strategy is as follows: purchase native corn directly from small producers that do not use agrochemicals, pay the farmers fair prices that allow them to stay in business, transform the corn into tortillas using traditional methods, and teach urban populations to appreciate the quality of a healthy and nutritious food. With no gluten present in the corn, one tortilla has only 60 calories. The nixtamalization process is said to increase the mineral concentration of calcium 20%, iron 37%, and phosphorous 15%.

The current tortillería scenario in Mexico City includes some trendy establishments run by chefs and environmentalists, who are basically promoters of the consumption of native varieties of corn and the nixtamalization process. In 2016, Gerardo Vázquez Lugo y Alfonso Muñiz, chefs from Nicos and Fonda Mayora, started “Maizajo”—in reference to a corn species considered the missing link between the wild grass teocintle and the domesticated corn in Mexico. “Maizajo” was the first shop dedicated to research, teaching and communication of all information about native corns and their processes.

Black Zapotec corn at Molino El Pujol

Black Zapotec corn at Molino El Pujol

Molino El Pujol by Enrique Olvera—chef of Pujol in Mexico City, Cosme in NYC and an increasing number of other ventures—has been making native Mexican corn tortillas since 2018 in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City, where more than half of the customers are foreigners. There, you can purchase tortillas by the dozen, masa by the kilo, and a taco or quesadilla or drink a blue corn cerveza while you wait. The results of these molinos efforts are magnified by the sale of masa to restaurants wanting to follow the conservation philosophy but that do not have the facilities to process raw corn. This commendable effort gets reflected on their prices: $1.50 USD a dozen, roughly $ 1.80 USD a pound. This is three times the price of conventional tortillas, not an easy sell to most Mexicans…
Blue Corn Beer

Blue Corn Beer

The idea behind these ventures is conservation. Albeit with the seed banks that exist around the world, native corn seeds—as well as other native food plant species—are perceived to be in danger of extinction. The germplasm guarded in these banks is the same that global seed companies use to produce hybrids—year after year—capable to produce ten or more times grain per acre than native seeds, but as hybrids they cannot reproduce, therefore farmers depend—year after year—on seed companies. This is the perceived “monster” behind the hybrid’s technology. Alas! The big seed companies also need the native seeds to produce the hybrids! These companies are the most interested in preserving native seeds! On the other hand, small farmers cannot afford expensive hybrid seeds, therefore they cannot produce enough to feed an ever-growing population. All this makes Mexico a net importer of corn. It is controversial, but on the one hand, the marginal or sustenance farmers cannot feed the country and the big farmers depend on GMOs and agrochemicals to meet the demand of the population. A balance needs to be found somewhere, organic agriculture seems to be the answer, but we are not just there yet…
Sope de salsa verde

Sope de salsa verde

In view of the stated above, the question is: what should we do besides being romantic about “saving” the native seeds and the livelihood of small farmers? It wouldn’t be bad to feed ourselves better, to demand “clean” foods and ingredients. Maybe we should jump in the native corn consumption wagon and start looking for the closest molino. Perhaps this trend will produce a sign: “Native Corn Coming Soon to a Molino Near You;” or so I hope…

For those crusaders that would go the extra mile and find a masa purveyor near—or far—from home, we provide a few recipes below that can make any weekend brunch a feast! While native corn masa becomes widely available, use corn flour and make yourself an expert handling masa, children love it! Maybe it’s time to get them started! Buen provecho!

Note: for the following recipes you will need corn masa, a griddle, and if possible a tortilla press, but before tortilla presses existed all masa products were done by hand. It doesn’t take much practice to get them right. If they break the masa needs water, If water is needed just get your hands wet and knead. If they are too sticky, there is too much water, add masa or masa harina. When the balance is correct shaping the masa is easiest. The hardest to make are tortillas but here we are going to start with gorditas, which are much easier, a good starter. Prepare a combination of the three recipes below and you will have a feast!

Blue corn gordita

Blue corn gordita

Gorditas de Chorizo
Let’s get started with a gordita, literally “small fat tortilla”. Later, we will convert the gordita into other corn delicacies.

Ingredients
2 lbs. Corn masa
12 oz. Chorizo fried (reserve the used oil)
1 lb. Monterey Jack cheese shredded
Your favorite salsa

Instructions
Mix the masa with the fried chorizo to a uniform blend. Make 12 small masa balls (2 to 3 oz. each). Pad the masa balls into round shaped ¼- to ⅜-inch thick gorditas. Cook them thoroughly in a hot griddle and reserve. You may grease the griddle with the oil used for frying the chorizo, if not, use it to refry beans. Once the cooked gorditas have cooled enough to handle, cut them open inserting a knife on the edge and stuff them with the cheese and salsa. You may choose to reheat them until the cheese melts or eat right away.

Yield: 6 portions
Heat level: depends on the salsa

Sope con huevo

Sope con huevo

Breakfast Sopes
Pinching a gordita around on one side of it before it gets completely cooked will make a little wall that will prevent the salsa from running away. Salsa, fresh chopped onions, and shredded cheese would be the basic toppings, but here we are adding a fried egg to make it a nutritious breakfast.

Ingredients
2 lbs. Corn masa
Cooking oil, shortening or lard (no olive oil please)
1 Onion finely chopped
1 lb. Queso fresco crumbled
12 Fried eggs
Your favorite salsa

Instructions
Make the masa into 12 small masa balls (2 to 3 oz. each). Pad the masa balls into round shaped ¼- to ⅜-inch thick gorditas. Cook them thoroughly in a greased hot griddle but before the last turn when the masa is still pliable, pinch one side around on the edge forming a little wall. If too hot to pinch with your fingers use tongs. Reserve warm. Put salsa, onions and cheese on the walled side of the sope, and a fried egg on top.

Yield: 6 portions
Heat level: depends on the salsa

Tlacoyo and nopales

Tlacoyo and nopales

Tlacoyos de Requesón
The shape of masa products determines the name of it. Don’t feel intimidated by the immense variety, just enjoy them!

Ingredients
2 lbs. Corn masa
Cooking oil, shortening or lard (no olive oil please)
1 lb. Queso fresco crumbled. Substitute Ricotta
Your favorite salsa

Instructions
Make the masa into 12 small masa balls (2 to 3 oz. each). Pad the masa balls into round shaped ¼- to ⅜-inch thick gorditas. Place the gordita in your hand, fill it half way with cheese and fold, press down. Make it uniformly oval (it will look like a flat football) and you just made a tlacoyo that is ready for the greased griddle. Once thoroughly cooked, serve with salsa on top. Enjoy!

Yield: 6 portions
Heat level: depends on the salsa

The following two tabs change content below.
Managing Editor | Mark is a freelance journalist based out of Los Angeles. He’s our Do-It-Yourself specialist, and happily agrees to try pretty much every twisted project we come up with.