THE ORIGIN OF MASA:
And Why it is Still Considered Bad Luck to Drop a Tortilla
“Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour.”—Laura Esquivel
Teosinte grass originally grew in Central America and Mexico during Pre-Columbian times. When the plant was cultivated into corn, several thousand years ago, the kernels were small and resembled the seeds on a wheat stalk. Since maize could be eaten fresh or dried and stored, the domestication of the plant was critical to the early survival of the Aztec, Maya, Inca, and native North Americans.
The Mesoamerican civilization discovered the process of nixtamalization in 3,000 BC. “Nixtamalization” from the Aztec word “nixtamalli,” a combination of the words for ashes and dough, involves cooking and steeping corn in an alkaline solution to soften the kernel’s tough outer layer. After the liquid is drained and the pericarp, or skin, removed, the batch of corn is ground into the dough known as masa. Not only does nixtamalization allow the grain to absorb water quickly and grind more easily, but it also increases the bioavailability of the then-unknown niacin.
The Aztecs revered corn and honored the plants with deities. Per Aztec legend, Quetzalcoatl, the God of civilization, collected precious bones from the underworld and sprinkled them with his blood. He took the sacred bones to Coatlicue, the mother of the gods, who milled them. From the kneaded dough, she created the first two humans.
The gods watched as their fledglings became weak with hunger. While the gods were trying to figure out what to feed us, Quetzalcoatl noticed a red ant carrying a corn kernel out of a mountain. He turned himself into a black ant, and then went into Tonacatépetl, the Mountain of Our Sustenance. Quetzalcoatl found the hidden corn and brought it back to where the deities lived. The gods chewed the corn and put some of the corn paste into our mouths. And that was our first taste of food.
For thousands of years, maize had spiritual and religious significance. From birth, when the umbilical cord would be cut over a maize cob, to death, when a small piece of maize dough was placed in the mouth of the deceased, maize played a central role in the cultures of Mesoamerica.
The Aztecs ate twice daily, with the main meal being served during the hottest time of the day. This mid-afternoon meal consisted of “tlaxcalli” a flat maize bread eaten with sauces and served with whole beans, avocados, squash and fruit.
Pozole, from the Nahuatl “potzolli” which means foamy, is a soup that was served during special occasions and rituals. Hominy boiled with the skin of sacrificed human prisoners—was served in communal ceremonies.
For the Spanish conquistadors, the story of masa began in 1519, when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico. The first mention of corn appears in a second letter from Cortés to King Charles V of Spain. In the letter dated 1520, he wrote, ” . . maize, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and Terra-firma…”
The Aztecs served the Spaniards “tlaxcalli,” a name they changed to “tortilla” in honor of the “little cake” of their homeland. Other masa-based dishes served were “chīllapītzalli” the Nahuatl words for “chili” and “flute” The dish eventually became known as enchiladas, and “chīlāquilitl” known today as chilaquiles.
At Coyoacán the Spaniards also enjoyed the “tamalii,” a word they altered to “tamale.” The “wrapped food,” as the Nahuatl name translated, was filled with a variety of meats, seafood, vegetables, insects, worms, fungi, nuts and fruit and wrapped in corn husks, avocado leaves or banana leaves. These portable morsels would prove beneficial for the conquistadors’ future travels.
Corn (batches of tamales and stacks of tortillas) was among the foods taken back to Europe. The plant quickly spread throughout France, Italy, southeastern Europe, and northern Africa. By 1575, corn was making its way into western China, and had become important in the Philippines and the East Indies.
Back in Mexico, Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun (1450-1590), assembled a compendium of all things relating to native history and customs that might be useful for Christianizing the Aztecs. The following is Father Sahagún’s description of a tamale vendor: “He sells meat tamales, turkey meat packets, plain tamales, tamales with chili,…frog tamales, pocket gopher tamales: tasty, tasty, very tasty.”
In 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed to the United States and became the 28th state. The country’s borders shifted, but the Mexicans remained, along with their food and culture. Taquerias of Tejas, now Texas, grew in popularity and spread throughout the southwest. When Mexico’s revolution of 1848 brought an influx of Mexican refugees to the states, the demand for Mexican food grew.
In 1914 a Midwestern housewife, Bertha Haffner-Ginger, recorded the first masa recipe in English. “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book” introduced authentic Mexican food to Anglo-Americans.
Equivalent to that embarrassing 7th grade yearbook picture, the tortilla’s least flattering moment occurred in 1938. To make tortillas available to more Americans, El Paso began selling a canned version. Although almost extinct, canned tortillas are still manufactured by companies for survivalist rations.
In the 1940s, electric motors powered wet-grain grinders began making masa for the first time. By the 1970s, tortilla-making machines produced hot tortillas every two seconds! Despite mechanization, corn tortillas in Mexico are still far from standardized. They are made from white, yellow, blue, or red corn and are anywhere from two inches to 12 inches in diameter.
Origin of Corn
The tortilla is the perfect food, and serves also as a delicious plate and spoon. Tortillas’ high carbohydrate content make them a great source of energy. They are also rich in calcium, potassium and phosphorus. Tortillas provide fiber, protein and some vitamins such as A, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin.
2 cups masa harina
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1 1/2 cups hot water (more or less) from the tap
For more supple tortillas add 1 tsp. cornstarch
Mix masa harina and salt in a bowl with your fingers, and then shape into a volcano. Pour hot tap water slowly and knead until it looks like Playdough. If it’s too sticky add more masa harina, or, if it’s too dry add a bit more water. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Preheat a griddle or flat surface. Divide the dough into 2 inch balls, about the size of a walnut.
WITHOUT A TORTILLA PRESS
Place a dough ball on one of the parchment sheets, and place the other sheet on top. Use a glass pie plate to press the tortilla to about 6 inches diameter and 1/8 inch thick.
WITH A TORTILLA PRESS
The easiest way to make tortillas and keep the masa from sticking is to line a tortilla press
with a couple of plastic freezer bags. Press the dough to about 6 inches diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Keep in mind that the tortilla press does not work well with flour tortillas, due to the elasticity of gluten.
The uncooked tortillas can be pressed and stacked between layers of wax paper and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator overnight. Extra dough can be placed in a freezer ziplock bag and frozen for up to one month.
Heat an ungreased skillet (we like to use cast iron, but use what you have) over medium heat. To gently dry the surface of the tortilla, using your palms, pass the tortilla between your hands a few times before placing on the hot skillet. Cook for approximately two minutes per side—when cooked, the tortilla will be dry, and lightly browned. Wrap in a cloth napkin or kitchen towel to keep warm while you continue cooking remaining tortillas.
Las nuevas ideas provienen de tradiciones muy antiguas.
New ideas come from very old traditions.
TORTILLAS CON SAZÓN
Infusing tortillas is surprisingly easy. By
replacing the water with a flavored liquid or
adding ingredients to the dry masa, you can
add unimagined flavors to your meals.
Broth Infused Tortillas --
Garlicky Parmesan Tortillas --
Jalapeño & Lime Tortillas --
Poblano Chile Tortillas --
Ancho Chile Tortillas --
Guajillo Chile Tortillas --
Achiote Tortillas --
Bell Pepper Tortillas --
Sweet Corn Tortillas --
Cilantro Lime Tortillas --
Beet Tortillas --
Cannabis Tortillas --
Substitute beef, chicken or vegetable broth for water.
Add 3 cloves (roasted or raw) minced garlic and 2 tablespoons of finely grated of parmesan cheese
Add 1 teaspoon minced jalapeño 1/4 cup lime juice
Add 2 poblanos, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
Add 2 dried chile anchos, peeled, seeded and diced
Add 2 dried chile guajillo, seeded and pureed
Dissolve 2 tablespoons of achiote paste into water
Add 1 roasted (red, green or yellow) pepper, peeled, seeded and diced
Add 3-4 tablespoons of sweet raw corn kernels
Add 3 cups cleaned chopped cilantro (1 large bunch), to blender, then add water up to the 1 1/2 cup water mark
Add 2 boiled red beets, peeled and pureed
Substitute1 cup marijuana flour (see About Cannabis)
NO-FRY CRUNCHY TACO SHELLS
Forget about buying taco shells. Baking your own is healthy, easy and inexpensive! What I like best about these shells is that they remain slightly pliable and can be overstuffed without crumbling.
Preheat oven to 350°.
To keep the tortillas from cracking, steam in batches of 6 over boiling water for 1 minute. Another way to soften the tortillas is to place a stack of 6 on a plate and cover with a damp paper towel. Microwave tortillas for about 30 seconds to soften.
The tortillas will be hot. Carefully drape each tortilla over rung of the oven rack. For wider tacos drape over 2 rungs.
Bake at 350° for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crispy.
JUST FOR KIDS
Nurture your kid's creative spirit with edible arts-and-crafts.
You may not want to mention these treats are healthy.
Pre-heat oven to 350°.
Carefully fold each tortilla into cone shapes and secure with a toothpick. In an ungreased cookie sheet, bake cones for 10 to12 minutes, or until crispy. Remove cones from the oven and let cool. Remove the toothpicks. Fill with the normally ignored vegetable and place a scoop of guacamole on top.
CINNAMON TORTILLA CHIPS
These chips are still more healthy than
fried tortilla chips and taste like like dessert.
Brush coconut oil over one side of tortilla.
Sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar.
Place slices on an ungreased baking sheet (sugar side up).
Bake at 350 degrees 10 minute or until light brown.
SWEET SALSA RECIPES
Pineapple and Mango Salsa
Peach and Mint Salsa
Blueberry, Strawberry and Jicama Salsa
Pomegranate and Pear Salsa
Meyers Lemon Salsa
Hot Bananas and Coconut Salsa
PRESSING EDIBLE FLOWERS
Pressing fresh flowers into homemade tortillas adds color and beauty to this culinary staple. Before you begin, ensure that you are using organic flowers, free of pesticides, and that the flowers are indeed safe for human consumption. A small selection might include squash blossoms, pansies, rose petals, marigolds (which are also used during Day of the Dead observances as offerings), and hibiscus. The delicate leaves of herbs, such as parsley, chives, and cilantro would also make beautiful and tasty additions. I’d recommend sampling the flower petals before pressing them into your masa to ensure that the taste is agreeable, as flavors may become more intense after cooking.
Use the master tortilla recipe, or any of the variations, proceed as instructed. Arrange your flowers or herbs as desired, then gently press again to adhere the flowers in place. Pan fry as instructed to finish.