Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Where tortillas come from

Most Mexican children are well experienced at being sent out "al madado" -- to buy tortillas just before breakfast or lunch.   Mothers give their children a special cloth in which to wrap the tortillas and just the right change to pay for them. The children go to a neighborhood tortillería where a clanging apparatus spits out hot and aromatic tortillas.

I first came upon a tortilla-making machine as an adult. I wonder what it is like to grow up with them as a child sent off to buy tortillas every day.  At first glance these machines look like complicated, disjointed contraptions, but really they are a compact, well-designed assembly line process. I wouldn't be surprised if early childhood awe over the tortilla-making machine leads to the National University's high enrollment in its School of Engineering. 

The machines are ubiquitous throughout the country.  You'll find them in small towns and city neighborhoods as well as in the fanciest of supermarkets.   The machinery is powered by electricity but the cooking is done with gas heat. In most neighborhood tortillerías the machines seem like they are always on the verge of breakdown with their covers removed years ago and their insides visible. Bicycle chains can be seen making gears turn and the conveyor belt move.  Just like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, the machines start making tortillas in the back of the store and shape, cut, cook, and pile up the finished product right at the front counter in less than a minute.

The Celorio brand machine puts out tortillas single file.  The Verastegui brand, designed for busier tortillerías, puts out tortillas which are almost side by side on the conveyor belt. It would be more correct to refer to designs rather than brands since most tortilla machines weren't purchased from the manufacturer. It's cheaper to buy parts and assemble one yourself following one of the traditional designs.   Too bad for the Celorio and Verastegui families, but that's the way it is.

The tortilla wouldn’t be possible without the ancient Mesoamaricans' discovery of the process of nixtamalization (an English word of Nahauatl origin). Corn was the staple of ancient Mesoamerica's diet and continues to be so for a substantial portion of the Mexican population.  Unless it is first nixtamalized, corn eaten in quantity will lead to debilitating diseases caused by a niacin (vitamin B3) deficiency.  Nixtalamization involves soaking and cooking kernels of corn in water and powdered limestone. This process breaks down the hull and transforms the nutrients in the kernel making them accessible to the human body.  When eaten along with beans and chile our bodies can transform the mix into protein.

Ground nixtamal becomes the dough or "masa" from which a tortilla is made. It's only ingredients are corn, lime, and water. Watch for a small pick-up truck delivering masa to a neighborhood tortillería.  You’ll see 50-kilo-bundles wrapped in a large cloth, referred to as a "maleta" (a suitcase).

At the tortillería, the maleta is put in the hopper of the tortilla-making machines. The machine presses the masa flat, cuts it into circles, and drops it on a conveyor belt where the tortillas cook. The tortillas on the conveyor belt expand and seem like they will fill up with air and pop. But they settle down by the time they get to where the conveyor belt drops the tortilla into a shoot where it comes to a standstill right on top of the tortilla ahead of it.

Tortillas made by machine have a characteristic that all Mexican cooks know about--they have a front and a back. Cooks will take this into account when rolling a tortilla into a taco or enchilada. They will make sure the inside of the folded tortilla is the weaker side, the side that bulged. 

As tortilla connoisseur Eduardo "Edy" Corona explained to me, “the machine's comal heats them more on one side than on the other.  In the machine the tortilla doesn't get cooked as evenly on each side as a hand made tortilla does."

It was interesting that Edy used the word comal to refer to part of the machine in which a metal conveyor belt keeps the tortillas moving at all times.  Comal properly refers to the flat griddle on which tortillas are traditionally cooked. Tortillas "hechas a mano" (made by hand), be they patted out by hand or squeezed flat in a press, are carefully laid on a hot comal.  They may inflate but they do so on both sides as they are flipped.

Neighborhood tortillerias that advertise “100% nixtamal” are where you’ll find tortillas made with the original Mesoamerican recipe, without fillers or preservatives.  You’ll also see a wonderful form of just-in-time movements, where vendors take orders from customers, weigh the tortillas, and make change just before the pile that has emerged from the machine is about to keel over.  And you’ll see children with their brightly-colored cloths out on their “madado”.

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