Bringing dignity to Mexican cuisine, one tortilla at a time

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I still remember the afternoon spent in Belize grinding corn to make tortillas.

A local woman had offered to teach a group of us. First, we separated the dried kernels from the cob. Then she showed us a bucket of grain that had been soaked overnight in water with dissolved lime. She washed and drained the corn, and we got to work grinding it. We ran the paste through the grinder a second time to get rid of the grainy texture. Then the flattened balls of dough were nestled on a griddle over an open fire. It was hot, hard work.

Why we wrote this

Authentic corn tortillas require time-consuming, even scientific, prep work. But for chefs who swear by them, the methods offer a way to explore foods and cultures with respect.

This process of soaking corn in alkalized water to break down the outer husk of the kernel is called nixtamalization. More Mexican chefs in the United States are reviving nixtamalization to make authentic corn tortillas, says chef Gustavo Romero of Minneapolis. “I don’t think you can really know or understand people until you understand their culture and what they eat,” he says.

In my tortilla-making class in Belize, we asked our teacher how many tortillas she made for her family each day. “About 75, three times a day,” she said. It takes him six hours. For people used to tearing apart bags of mass-produced tortillas, that was a lot to process. But for our hostess, it was simply the only and best way.

We agree.

I still remember the afternoon spent in Belize grinding corn to make tortillas. I was staying in an ecolodge and a friendly local woman hosted our group in her thatched house to guide us through this task. First, we separated the dried kernels from the cob. Then she showed us a bucket of grain that had been soaked overnight in water with dissolved lime. She washed and drained the corn, and we got to work grinding it. We ran the paste through the grinder a second time to get rid of the grainy texture. Then the flattened balls of dough were nestled on a griddle over an open fire. It was hot, hard work.

This process of soaking corn in alkalized water to break down the outer husk of the kernel is called nixtamalization. More Mexican chefs in the United States are reviving nixtamalization to make authentic corn tortillas, says chef Gustavo Romero of Minneapolis. “I don’t think you can really know or understand people until you understand their culture and what they eat,” he says.

Chef Romero, who runs Nixta, an artisan tortilleria, is passionate about reviving centuries-old techniques to bring a sense of dignity to Mexican cuisine, which he says has become synonymous with “fast” and “cheap.”

The colorful tortillas are made by Nixta tortilleria from a variety of Mexican heirloom corn in Minneapolis.

Why we wrote this

Authentic corn tortillas require time-consuming, even scientific, prep work. But for chefs who swear by them, the methods offer a way to explore foods and cultures with respect.

“It’s not what we eat,” he says. “That’s not how it started.”

In ancient practices, nixtamalization was done with wood ashes, and that’s where the name comes from. Nextli (ashes) combines with tamalli (tamale) in Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken throughout Mexico. Chef Romero, who uses ground volcanic rock powder to alkalize the water, says this process allows the corn to absorb more calcium and potassium, resulting in more nutritious tortillas. It uses 18 to 20 varieties of imported Mexican heirloom corn that yield a rainbow of white, yellow, pink, purple and dark blue tortillas. He says using ancient corn is key to making tortillas “the right way.” Mexican corn breaks down more easily in the nixtamalization process because it has a thinner husk, unlike hardy yellow corn which can withstand harsh North American winters.

In my tortilla-making class in Belize, our group managed to produce a few dozen tortillas, which we quickly ate warm, topped with sliced ​​hard-boiled eggs and freshly made salsa. We asked our teacher how many tortillas she made every day for her family. “About 75, three times a day,” she said. It takes him six hours. For people used to tearing apart bags of mass-produced tortillas, that was a lot to process. But for our hostess, it was simply the only and best way. And we accepted.

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