Mexico’s Daily Bread

Story by Romney Steele | Photos by Gwendolyn Meyer

Named by the Spanish, this flat, unleavened corn bread is used for many of the dishes we’ve come to know and love as Mexican food: tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, and many other antojitos (snack foods). Not unlike unleavened breads from other cultures, in Mexico, the tortilla is commonly used like a utensil to sop up the sauce from a rich mole or stew or to scoop up beans or a main course. When fried, it is the crispy undergarment for tostadas, and when hand-formed, it becomes a thick, boat-like vessel for shredded meats and vegetables in regional specialties. Tortillas can be layered in casseroles and pies and used as wrappers for a variety of fillings. They can even be ground and used as a natural thickener or reshaped into dumplings. The tortilla, in all its guises, is Mexico’s everyday fast food, served at every meal and in every household. In short, it plays the central role in Mexican cuisine.

Traditionally, tortillas are made from dried white corn that has been soaked and cooked with slaked lime, then stone-ground and kneaded into masa (dough). With the addition of fat, usually lard, this becomes the dough for tamales. The practice of cooking corn with lime for use in breads has been maintained for centuries throughout Mesoamerica—lime, an excellent source of calcium hydroxide, makes it easier for the human body to process corn’s inherent nutrients.

The tortilla is no newcomer to Mexico. Dating back to the ancient Aztecs, it is at the root of Mexico’s cuisine and culture. According to legend, tortillas were first made by a peasant to please the king, and the thinner the tortilla the more prized it was. Throughout history, tortillas (made thick or thin) and corn (in general) played a central role in all families—they are the sacred glue that binds native culture and tradition.

Tortillas were praised as the “wonder of the New World,” according to Bette Fussell in her fascinating book, The Story of Corn. Fussell shows us the Aztecs’ regard for maize and their skill in adapting its use to great potential. This twice-cooked patty cake, perfected over multiple generations, was just one of many foods made with the ancient corn, but it remains a staple of modern Mexico.

In Mexico, tortillas come in myriad shapes and sizes—thick, thin, large, small, hand-patted, pressed between wooden boards or in a metal press, and even factory-made. They are also made with different corn varieties: white, yellow, blue, and red.

It is a wonder to watch tortillas being made by hand in Mexico, as I had the chance to do this past summer. I watched as Indian women deftly handled the dough, pressing it quickly between sheets of plastic, and, with almost musical precision, lobbing the paper-thin tortillas onto a hot clay griddle called a comal, only to repeat the task again and again. The corn tortillas in Oaxaca were ethereal and of the thinner kind. They had a wonderful earthy taste, a distinct corn texture, and a slight floral perfume.

If you are not tempted to make your own (it’s not as hard as you think), you can always purchase tortillas made at factories, such as La Finca Tortilleria in Oakland, which has been owned and operated by the Rocha family for more than twenty years. Caren Maravilla Rocha, finance manager at La Finca, says they make tortillas like the ones “that you eat back home.” Caren’s husband is Mario Rocha, president of La Finca and oldest son of the founders. They make tortillas the old-fashioned way, beginning with high quality, California-grown white corn (non-genetically modified) that they process themselves in the following manner:

They cook the dried corn with lime and water in huge stainless vats, and then cool it overnight; the color of the water turns a golden yellow. The corn is drained and skinned, and then ground in a machine powered by thick, round volcanic stones, which are about 18 inches in diameter. The meal is run through a stainless steel feeder, which kneads it into a dough. The dough is immediately rolled, cut, and cooked in a special oven (called a comale, just like the clay griddle). The tortillas are hand packed while still slightly warm. Production happens twice a day, seven days a week. At peak production, the factory processes up to 13,000 pounds of corn per day, making upwards of 280,000 tortillas.

Unlike most of the tortillas you find on the grocery shelf, La Finca’s tortillas are a natural yellow color and have no added preservatives, but they do have a shorter shelf life—about a week if kept in the refrigerator. The difference is a fresher corn taste and that subtle earthy perfume when toasted in a cast iron skillet. The shorter shelf life doesn’t seem to be a problem for customers, who buy tortillas in family packs (five dozen per pack) from La Finca’s store at the corner of 38th Avenue and Foothill in Oakland. The store also sells just about every other ingredient you might need for cooking Mexican food, including other tortilla products, chiles, beans, herbs, and meat. They also sell tortilla presses and fresh masa for those who want to make their own tortillas. During the Christmas holidays, a line forms around the block as people clamor to score a five-pound bag of fresh masa, either with the addition of lard or sin preparar (without lard, but with vegetable fat) to make traditional homemade tamales.

“The older generation does, and sometimes the younger ones purchasing for their moms,” answers Caren Rocha, when I ask if families still buy masa to make their own tortillas at home. She confesses that she doesn’t make tortillas at home but relies on the skill of her mother-in-law, reportedly an expert cook.

Augustín Gaytán, a Fruitvale-based cooking teacher of traditional Mexican cuisine, buys masa from La Finca on a regular basis to make his own tortillas, and he highly recommends you do the same. He writes in an e-mail exchange, “The masa they make is really wonderful. It’s made the authentic way with nixtamal, which is corn that has been cured with lime or calcium oxide.” In fact, La Finca has a regular following of masa customers, including the popular Doña Tomás restaurant and the stylish Tamarindo in downtown Oakland.

La Finca caters to a largely Hispanic clientele and sells tortillas only in family packs. When I asked if they have ever considered making smaller packages, or why they don’t supply them to places like Trader Joe’s or some of the better-known grocery chains, Caren Rocha reflected La Finca’s business history and on the Rocha family values. “We don’t want to be a packing company for someone else,” she said, speaking directly about Trader Joe’s. She then paraphrased something Mario once said to her, “We are proud of our business and what we do for our community.”

Tijuana Restaurant, on International Boulevard between 14th and 15th Avenues, is another venerable establishment that proudly uses La Finca masa to make their own tortillas, and they claim that people come from all over to eat them (and their famed marisco platters). Tijuana has been in business for 40 years, and judging by how busy it was on a recent Sunday afternoon, the food stands up to its excellent reputation. When I asked the warm and jovial owner, Nicolas Espinoza, about his homemade tortillas, he ushered us into the kitchen to witness tortillas being made to order. Just like at home.

“Customers come for our fresh tortillas,” he said as we dodged busy wait staff. He lifted a hot one off the grill with his hands and then talked about the tortilla with great care and attention as he showed it off. He then offered us a taste. The tortilla was warm, puffy, and unbelievably fresh. It had that slightly blistered earthiness and distinct corn flavor—very much like the tortillas I remember from Mexico. When I asked why the restaurant chooses to press their own, rather than purchasing La Finca’s already made tortillas, he noted that the machines press them too thin for his taste.

“The people like when you make home tortillas,” he said. I was certainly sold, and it was obvious that his customers were, too. Later, as I was stepping into my car, one family that had seen us in the restaurant came up to offer their unsolicited endorsement: “They are famous. People come from all over for their food.” When I asked if that was true about the tortillas, the family confirmed in unison that yes, they come for the fresh, handmade tortillas, too. Without a doubt, they do.

Masa

Masa means “our flesh” in the Nahuatl language, and it is said to reflect an early belief that human beings were made from corn dough. As the mainstay of traditional cuisine, it is likely the tortilla may just be the flesh and blood of the people.

This is what Augustín Gaytán says about making tortillas: “Growing up in Mexico, I used to help my mom prepare our nixtamal the night before. Basically, you mix dry corn kernels with water and some powdered limestone, cook it until the corn is al dente, then you let it soak all night. The next morning, you rinse it in several waters and take the nixtamal to the mill to be ground into masa for tortillas. The same nixtamal can be ground more coarsely to make tamales. In Mexico, we always flavor our masa at home with lard, stock, salt, chile, etc. if we are going to make tamales.”

Atole

This recipe is offered by Maria Guadalupe Rocha, founder, with her husband, of La Finca Tortilleria.

Atole is a warm almost porridge-like drink made thick with masa. This drink can be served at breakfast or as a dessert. It is made mostly during the winter and is a staple during the holidays.

1 gallon water
1 stick cinnamon
5 small cubes piloncillo (natural cone-shaped sugar, purchased at most Mexican stores)
1 pound masa, for tortilla
1 can Nestle Lechera (sweetened condensed milk, use this brand)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Boil water with stick of cinnamon and piloncillo. Stir masa into boiling water and add the Lechera. Continue stirring and add vanilla. Stir until atole thickens and boils, approximately 15 minutes. (Mixture needs to be constantly stirred, if not the atole will stick to the pot and burn.)
Pour into ceramic bowls and serve with a piece of Mexican bread or a tamale.

Recipe time: Approximately 30 minutes.

You can find La Finca products at a variety of supermarkets in Oakland: La Finca, 3801 Foothill Blvd.; FoodMaxx; Supermercado Mi Tierra; and Chavez Supermarkets; as well as some of the smaller markets in Fruitvale.

Augustín Gaytán teaches cooking classes at Ramekins in Sonoma and at Adrononicos in Danville. He also teaches privately and leads cooking tours. For more information, go to www.agustincooks.com

Diana Kennedy, the doña of Mexican cuisine, offers amusing and easy to follow instructions on how to make tortillas at home in her book, The Art of Mexican Cooking (1989).