Cooking the Tortillas, Tortillas Hecha a Mano

Hey man, where can I buy some tortillas?

What do you mean “Hey man, where can I buy some tortillas?” you live in Mexico, don’t you? Yes, but the question still remains.  Even though tortillas are sold on almost every street corner, the truth is, not all tortillas are created equal. A little history is needed.

Mexicans eat corn tortillas. It is not uncommon for a single person to eat between 5 to 10 tortillas a day. As a country Mexicans consume 300,000,000 corn tortillas a day.  That’s right 300 million  tortillas a day. In the USA, tortillas, and related products ( tortilla chips, tostadas and taco shells) comprise a mind blowing $6 billion a year industry.

Growing up in San Diego , my taste for Mexican food, and tortillas, started early in life. At 10 years of age, I made my first quesadilla. I was in the 5th grade and at school I learned to heat a corn tortilla in butter, add grated cheese, fold it and wait till it was melted. Maybe not your typical quesadilla, but I was so excited about what I had learned, that I ran home that day , asked my mom to buy corn tortillas, and I made cheese quesadillas for my parents. Some years later my buddies and I quickly realized that the dozens of Mexican fast-food shops, such as Alberto’s and the like, were a much better option for quick eats than the American burger chains. To eat Mexican food at home we started making burritos with flour tortillas. Corn tortillas, used for tacos, tostadas, and enchiladas, were more difficult to use and, I don’t know. I think it was just easier to make burritos.

In 2012, while staying in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I learned to make corn tortillas from scratch, in Spanish that’s “hecha a mano”or “hand made”, a time consuming process, but one that is still practiced in many small towns today. In reality, it wasn’t until two years later that I really started to understand and develop a full appreciation for the corn tortilla.

Through the years, flour tortillas have changed little, only in the fact that they are now being made with vegetable shortening, such as Crisco, as opposed to lard. Corn tortillas, on the other hand, have changed considerably. For literally thousands of years, corn tortillas were made “hecha a mano”. Then in the early 1950’s a Mexican company “Gruma” aka “Mission Tortillas” created a nixtamalized corn flour that short cut the whole process. They began selling this new corn flour, which gave rise to tortilla factories, or tortilliarias.  The difference between tortillas from the tortilliaria, and those “hecha a mano” is like comparing white bread with whole wheat bread. These days here in Mexico, its easier to find hard, dried, factory made tortillas, wrapped in plastic, like we find in the US, than those made by hand, in fact I even see Mexicans buying these packaged tortillas in the supermarket as we do in the US.

This company, Gruma, which is akin to the Walmart of the tortilla industry, owns about 80% of the US tortilla market, and they are really threatening part of Mexico’s cultural heritage with extinction.

What to do?? Buy locally made tortillas, buy tortillas hecha a mano.