A tortilla is just a tortilla, right?
What makes an authentic corn tortilla? Is a tortilla just a tortilla? Not exactly, let me explain...
As Mark and I launched Yoli, we often spent a lot of time explaining what nixtamalization process was and how that made a corn tortilla so different. Then we get asked, what makes our tortillas so different from perhaps a Maseca (corn flour) tortilla. I don’t know how many people know the history of the corn tortilla, but it is one of the most authentic products that started in the indigenous times prior to colonization. Before being colonized, Mexico had a rich culinary history…
***Warning, personal views will be shared***
The natives in Mexico grew corn and had volcanic stone grinders called metates (9000 years BC). The Aztecs are credited on standardizing what the corn tortilla looks like today. When Spaniards came to Mexico and colonized…they took not only our country but a lot of our food traditions. They brought rice with them and many other elements that are now considered Mexican cuisine, thus the stone ground tortilla remained. For me the corn tortilla represents survival of our ancestry through years of oppression.
Fast forward to 1949, Molinos Azteca company was created which is now known as GRUME (owner of Maseca, Mission, Guerrero, etc.). Their vision was to create a quick way to make the tortilla for the new industrialized nation. Making stone ground tortillas is time consuming: cooking the corn, letting it steep, grinding it and then you can make and cook the tortillas. To enhance this, Mexico was suffering new levels of poverty. The government began running programs where they would buy the corn from farmers at high prices and then sell to molinos at lower prices. Molinos were places that people were taking the cooked corn to be ground fresh and later many molinos became tortillerias. With the government subsidizing the corn prices, it assured people were being fed.
In the meantime, Molinos Azteca had developed a dried corn flour known as Maseca. You would just mix with water and voila you had masa. The benefits were clear, fresh stone ground corn masa spoils easier. When you make tortillas from stone ground masa, you need to refrigerate or eat quickly. Maseca gave the advantage of being able to transport the dried masa flour without spoiling. It sounds great, right? Not so fast… Mexicans hated it! The taste of Maseca was inferior (and still is) and once a tortilla is made with the corn flour it tends to come apart easily. For two decades Maseca struggled in sales. It was only seen as an emergency product, something you would have in your pantry just in case though no one liked eating it.
Then in 1988 everything changed, the owners of Molinos Azteca now with its new name of GRUME, were friends of the new Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. If you don’t know anything about him…google it. I grew up during his presidency and was the most corrupt president in Mexican history. When Salinas was in office, he paid the Gonzales family a favor by changing the rules of the corn. Remember when I stated that Mexico was subsidizing the corn to feed the people? When Mexico was doing this, it was with fresh corn to become fresh masa. Salinas government started limiting the amount of subsidized corn for the molinos and tortillerias. If you needed more corn, you were told that you needed to buy corn flour from Maseca. All the sudden, Maseca’s sales more than doubled between 1988 and 1996.
The incentive to use Maseca didn’t stop there, its reported that some states such as Chiapas passed laws where they obligated tortillerias to have certain licenses, ventilation standards, etc. Most tortillerias that were processing stone ground corn could not afford the changes. Maseca representatives came into the rescue and would help the business in exchange for them using Maseca. Those that refused, went out of business.
Fast forward to now and Maseca tortillas have become so common that sometimes people have forgotten what the taste of a real tortilla is or even worse, they accepted its crappy taste due to the better shelf life. Please note that tortillas that you see in the unrefrigerated section in a grocery store will have additives.
The good thing is that many people, especially those descendants from the natives in areas like Oaxaca, they never stopped making tortillas the traditional way. You can still go to Mexico and taste what a real tortilla should taste like. Be warned that there are many places that had to adapt to the Maseca tortilla. There are generations that don’t even know what an authentic corn tortilla should taste like, even in Mexico. This makes me extremely sad as I said before, there is nothing more authentic of true ancient native civilization than the corn tortilla. I’m optimistic that new generations are craving for the real thing. In addition, there are many chefs both in Mexico and USA that appreciate what the real corn tortilla should taste like. With their support and producers like ourselves, we aim for you to experience true and delicious stone ground corn tortillas.
If you are wondering how you know you are eating an authentic corn tortilla, here are some tips:
1. Ingredients – Corn, water and lime. Corn tortillas in the unrefrigerated section will likely have an additive for it to have a better shelf life.
2. When you open your bag, you should smell the corn. Yes, authentic corn tortillas are aromatic.
3. When you heat them up, which preferably would be in a very hot cast iron flat pan (comal) – they should puff. This means that when your tortilla was cooked it was cooked to perfection, making sure that it puffed to make it soft.
4. Once you heat it up, you should be able to fold your tortilla and open it back up without it coming apart.
5. It outperforms Maseca with elasticity. If you have been wondering why you have been seeing tortillas with a combo of corn flour and wheat flour in the market, it’s because they cannot replicate the natural elasticity you get with stone ground tortillas. The solution, add wheat flour.
*Aztec image source Codex Mendoza (can be found in many sites scanned from different books)