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Vittles 2.13 - Tortillas
Respecting Corn, by Hannah Thorne
Taco nerds in the UK have historically been on a hiding to nothing, traipsing around taquerias with phonetically Anglicised names asking chefs, Larry David style, whether they respect corn or not. “Do you make your own tortillas? Uh huh. Yeah, what sort of corn? The tortilla is the most important part of the taco don’t you think? You know, when I was in Los Angeles I…”
Yet quicker than you can say ‘nix-ta-ma-lised’ everything seemed to change. Suddenly everyone was respecting corn. The unlikely corn-respecter-in-chief has been Crispin Somerville, nightclub owner turned Chris Morris collaborator turned honorary Hart Brother, who has been banging onto me about corn for longer than his restaurant El Pastor has been in business, working with individual farmers and co-operatives in Mexico who use indigenous corn varieties rather than transgenic ones. It’s difficult for someone to respect corn much more. With El Pastor’s opening in 2016, putting the tortilla itself centre stage, it seemed corn was finally having its moment in the UK.
There’s still a difficult conversation to be had about why Mexican food in the UK is so often refracted through the lens of whiteness and through white messengers, and about who has the access to supply chains and PR to move the narrative forward. There are obvious demographic reasons for this —there’s likely more British people who have lived in Mexico than the other way around. But I also remember a “Mexican issue” of a well known UK food supplement that inexcusably featured only one or two contributors who were actually Mexican. Although British colonial history strongly informs the way many cuisines in the UK are written (or not written) about, there are others which don’t have this history — Thai and Mexican particularly — where the discourse still feels colonial and acquisitive, taking the parts of culture they’re interested in (the food) and discarding the rest (the people, mainly).
I think things have started to move forward, especially in the last year. Not only is there Edson Diaz-Fuentes of Santo Remedio and Nud Dudhia of Breddos, but you now have great takeaways like the absurdly named La Chingada run by German-Mexican Walter Opitz, and Pollo Feliz owned by Michelle Salazar de la Rocha, whose roti-like Sonoran wheat tortillas, translucent with fat, have provided a lifeline for east Londoners during the pandemic. There are also more places springing up selling Mexican produce to make tortillas with. As Hannah Thorne argues in today’s newsletter, with real tortillerias in short supply, perhaps is the time to start making our own. After all, a beginner’s loaf of sourdough will suck your time and give you mediocre sandwiches, but teach yourself to make a good tortilla and in fifteen minutes you’ve opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Respecting Corn, by Hannah Thorne
When I first moved to the UK in 2014, I came with a suitcase full of essential Mexican cooking items: mole, canned tomatillos, dried chillies, queso Oaxaca, and of course tortilla flour. I had come from Mexico City, where my Peruvian parents had moved to when I was 8 years old and is still the place I consider home. I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t find in London; I figured there would perhaps be ubiquitous Tex Mex food, Old El Paso and Chipotle. The reality was that traditional Mexican cuisine was even fewer and far between than I had envisioned. While London may be a thriving international city, the majority of Latin Americans moving to Europe opt for countries like Spain, Portugal or Italy where many people have families or ancestral ties, and of course similarities in culture and language. It seemed like most people’s experience of Mexican food in the UK is a Westernized version, Mexico via California or Texas; the real deal has so far been rather elusive.
But even when it is found, there is something intrinsically off in having to pay £6 for two tacos. Tacos are traditionally street food: they’re a meal if you’re having five, and a snack if you have two. They are delectable and simple. Everyone from all walks of life, no matter their social-economic class, enjoys a good taco. Honestly, you can put anything in a tortilla, you can cook it in a myriad of ways —there is no right or wrong, it is simply the vessel of your journey.
The story of the tortilla starts with corn. Corn was (and remains), to put it bluntly, a big deal for the people of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs believed that it was a gift from Quetzalcoatl (one of the gods of creation), whereas the Mayans believed that the gods created humankind from corn itself. It may sound peculiar coming from the gringo perspective where corn is encountered in tiny cobs for the BBQ or floating in canned brine, but for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica it was more than food, it was a gift and the foundation of empires.
The process of making tortillas hasn’t changed in centuries. The dough is made through a traditional process called nixtamalisation, where dried corn (ideally a native variety to Mesoamerica and never, ever sweetcorn) is cooked in cal, which is commonly referred to as limewater. This is left to soak overnight and then is ground the following morning. This process releases nutrients and vitamins like calcium, fibre, magnesium, and potassium, making tortillas a vital inclusion for a balanced diet in a country that suffers from a severe health deficit and obesity.
Don’t worry, our modern times allow us to purchase corn flour that has been nixtamalised already. The most common nixtamalised flour found in Mexico and the world is Maseca, a product made by the billion-dollar food manufacturing company Gruma (kind of like a Mexican Kelloggs). Although pre-made flour such as Maseca is cheaper and easily found, its mass production and distribution has greatly affected the quality and nutritional value of tortillas, impacting not just the consumers but corn farmers themselves who have to compete with the lower prices of these industrial giants. If you ask any Mexican they will all tell you that traditional tortillas are far superior to the industrial kind - not only do they have a far wider range of flavor but a stronger consistency that allows them to hold their shape, making them better equipped in maintaining the structural integrity of a taco. There is nothing worse than a tortilla falling apart, forcing you to corral morsels of food with your soggy hands.
Many people are finally taking the time to make the food they might normally just buy off the shelf or get Deliverooed. As great as sourdough starters and yeasty carbs are, the humble tortilla shouldn’t be overlooked. Pre-made packaged tortillas are easily available in supermarkets and online shops but I really do recommend you take it a step further and just buy the nixtamalised flour. Tortillas are incredibly simple to make and their best expression is made fresh and consumed as quickly as possible. Airtight packages suck out all the moisture leaving them hard and rigid, taking out all the flexibility in the tortilla and leading them to crack and fall apart. Making them at home with nixtamalised flour really doesn’t take long, and in the absence of local tortillerias (which you would have in Mexico and some parts of the US) it makes such a big difference to what’s available that it’s impossible to argue that it’s not worth the effort.
Plus you can use any leftover flour to make quesadillas, any stale tacos to make enchiladas. Proper corn tortillas go further than a loaf of bread! The beauty of the tortilla is that it can be used for so many different dishes; as the base, like in quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos al pastor and huevos rancheros; as an accompaniment in plates like cecina; or my personal favorite, both, like mole negro, which can be served with rice and a side of warm tortillas or as a base for mole tacos.
Try making tortillas and you will find that making great Mexican food is perhaps easier than you think. The combination of cuisines from Spain, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, France, and Prehispanic America has created a complex and diverse gastronomy, but it truly has something for everyone. Mexican cuisine isn’t monolithic — every town has its own claim to fame, a square in a tapestry rich with tradition and centuries of adaptation — but throughout them all you will always find the tortilla, the ever-present thread which ties it all together.
Here is what you will need to make your own tortillas:
A tortilla press or rolling pin (the tortilla press is available here but a rolling pin is just fine)
A frying pan
In a bowl add two cups of tortilla flour and half a teaspoon of salt, make a well in your flour and add around 320ml of warm water. Using your hands, mix together to make a dough. Leave to sit for 15 minutes.
Section the dough into balls, if the dough cracks when pressed add some more water (make sure to add it very gradually so you don’t put too much). You want to take two medium-sized square sheets of baking paper, spritz both pieces of paper with cooking spray or rub some vegetable oil on them this will prevent the dough from sticking.
Take one of the dough balls in place on one of the papers and cover it with the other sheet, using your hands to press down on the dough. Next, take a rolling pin and roll out the dough to form a round tortilla making sure to roll it out on all sides to make it as even as possible. Peel away the top of the paper, flip the tortilla over onto your palm, and peel off the back of the paper. If you do have a tortilla press it is essentially the same process, place your paper on the base of the press, insert your dough and cover with the other sheet, close the press and use the handle to cross over the press and push down to flatten your tortilla.
Warm a hot pan to medium-high heat. Gently position as many tortillas as you can on the pan without overcrowding them. Cook for 1 to 2 on each side until the edges begin to slightly curl up. You will know they are done when they are dry to the touch and have some slight brown toasted spots.
Now that you know how to master making tortillas at home why not try one of my personal favorite dishes. It’s called huevos rancheros and it is a traditional breakfast dish consisting of two fried eggs covered in salsa roja sitting on top of two tortillas with a side of refried beans. Breakfast of champs.
For the ultimate breakfast you will need:
● 4 large ripe medium red tomatoes
● 1 yellow onion roughly chopped
● 1 garlic clove roughly chopped
● 2 hot chillies (traditionally chile de Arbol I used, a good replacement is scotch bonnet)
● ½ tablespoon of vegetable oil
● 1teaspoon of butter (20 g)
● A handful of fresh coriander
● 8 fl oz of chicken or vegetable stock (1 cup)
● Salt & pepper to taste
1. The first step is to char the chilis and tomatoes by placing them in a hot, you want them to get a black char on all sides, once they have, remove them from the heat. Make sure to leave the tomatoes and chilies whole.
2. Next, grab a pot and heat up some vegetable oil. When it is hot add the onion and garlic, sauté and lower the heat to medium for roughly two minutes before adding the butter.
3. Add the tomato, chillies, fresh coriander and stock. If you want your salsa milder in heat be sure to add the chillies in small doses so you can measure your desired spice level. Let it simmer for 20 minutes on low heat. Blend the sauce and allow it to simmer until you get the desired consistency.
● 1cup of black beans soaked overnight
● 1 ½ yellow onion chopped
● 2 cloves of garlic
● 1 teaspoon of cumin
● 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
● 1 cup of chicken or vegetable stock
● A handful of fresh coriander
● Salt and pepper to taste
1. Drain beans from the water you left them soaking in overnight.
2. Boil the beans in water until cooked, it will take between 45 minutes to 1 hour.
3. In a pan heat up some oil, bring it to medium heat add the onion, and garlic cook until the onions are translucent. Add the cumin, garlic powder, salt, and pepper.
5. Next add the beans, coriander and stock. Let the beans simmer for 20 minutes allowing the stock to reduce.
6. Roughly blitz the beans or use a potato masher.
Hannah Thorne is a Latin American art director living in London who has always had a love for food. After several years of developing and recording her favourite recipes, she has put together a website dedicated to cooking. Check out her website CIBUS, and follow @cibuskitchen on Instagram for recipes and updates. Hannah was paid for this newsletter
The illustrations were done by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com. Natasha was also paid for her illustrations.