The art of making tortillas in Yucatán or anywhere in Mexico is time-consuming and tedious, but it is impossible to imagine Mexican food without this quintessential component.
I wanted to learn more about them, so I acquainted myself with the cooking class “Manos en la Masa” (a play on words, since “hands in the masa” is a Mexican euphemism for political corruption!)
Corn is one of Mexico’s great gifts to the culinary world, along with tomatoes, chili peppers, chocolate and turkeys. It has been grown by the Maya for millennia, and reverence for this life-sustaining crop is seen in artwork since ancient times.
Susi Noh Un is a Maya woman from the village of Sacalaca, several hours from Mérida, across the border with Quntana Roo state. As we are introduced to Susi, we are captivated by her gentle smile and loving demeanor. She wears a simple cotton dress with elaborate embroidery, just as her great-grandmothers would have worn. In Yucatán, it is called “huipil”, and is perfectly suited to the hot, humid climate.
At home she begins the tortilla process every evening, using ingredients grown in her own garden. Her husband plants and harvests the white maize (corn) that will be used, and each evening a large handful of kernels are thrown into a pot and covered with water. Calcium hydroxide (“cal” in Spanish) is added to the water.
Susi explains that if too much is added the corn will absorb the flavor of the slaked lime, with bitter tasting results. Too little, and the hulls will not detach and the masa will be too chewy. Science has shown that this process removes toxins from the corn and releases binding agents from the oil that allow it to form a dough. With so much at stake one would expect exact measurements, but Susi tosses a handful of cal into the water using only her experienced eye as a guide.
The corn is boiled for thirty minutes, the water is changed out, and the pot left to sit overnight. This is called “nixtamal.” Early in the morning she reaches into the bright yellow water and firmly scrubs the hulls from the kernels, periodically emptying out the water and loose hulls until the water is clear. After draining the corn and eyeing the water for stray hulls, the corn is wrung through a hand grinder, “molino de mano.” The resulting consistency is crumbly, but the process is not over. The mixture is splattered with water and hand kneaded until it is the consistency of dough. It is then fed through the molino again to reach the desired consistency of fine masa.
We taste the result. This masa has an amazing freshness, a pure corn flavor that is missing in commercial tortillas. I now understand how there can be such a difference between restaurants in the quality and flavor of tortillas! To allow comparison, Susi makes some masa using a commercial maseca, or dried corn flour. She warns us that it is a popular, and simpler, alternative, but the results are less satisfying, and break apart when cooking. (Later she is proven correct.) The masa is now ready to be turned into tortillas, panuchos, tamales, pib, or any number of other dishes.
The pressing of the masa into tortillas can be done by hand, as we are instructed to do, or using a tortilla press. In commercial establishments, massive machines simplify the process, and lower the cost. We each give it a try. Susi’s are perfectly round and even in thickness. Ours? Not so much! The pressed tortillas are placed on a heated comal, a flat, round skillet (no oil) and cooked until they begin to change color around the edges. They are flipped and cooked until gentle pressure with a piece of folded paper towel causes the tortilla to inflate. They are then removed by hand or spatula and placed in a round basket known as a tortillera.
To sample our handiwork, we will need a bit more. Small dried squash seeds are roasted on the comal, and then wrung through the same grinder used for the masa. The air is suddenly alive with the aroma of the seeds. We boil and peel tomatoes and crush them with a tejelote and molcajete, the same mortars and pestles made from volcanic stone that one encounters in ancient carvings and codices, still readily available in mercados. The tomatoes are mixed with finely chopped fresh cilantro and the ground squash seeds to make a paste known as “sikil pak.” There are variations to the recipe that can include onions and chili peppers depending on one’s tastes. American cookbooks often call for pumpkin seeds – more readily available, but larger, and less earthy in flavor.
Another dish, “Tok sel” mixes fresh Yucatecan white beans (ibes) with scallions, lime juice and the ground seeds. We slice fresh Yucatecan avocados and mix water with fresh pineapple as a beverage and “Kox ama” – time to eat!
I am not sure I have the dedication to make tortillas from scratch on a regular basis, though I might for a special occasion. But this encounter with Yucatecan tradition has left me feeling more in touch with the local culture, and far more in awe of the Mayan kitchen.