Tortillas are to Guatemalan food what bacon is to eggs or meatballs are to spaghetti. Failing to serve the former with the latter would simply blow the mind, and who wants little bits of mind in their meal?
They’re eaten three times a day. At breakfast, they’re served with eggs and beans (SANS bacon… mind=kaboom!), in some variation of a desayuno chapin. Come lunch, they accompany fried chicken, roast chicken, or chicken soup, coliflor envuelta, spicy sausage, or grilled pork or beef. For dinner, the smallest meal of the day, many folks simply sprinkle them with salt and snack on them as is.
When you eat out–in restaurants or comedores (small, informal eateries)–tortillas are served two to four per person; on the street, where you can buy them freshly made and piping hot from countless tortillerías (tiny, single-room spaces where señoras and señoritas shape and cook tortillas all day long), they’re sold five for one quetzal (about 12 cents).
Now, before continuing on, let’s stop and consider that last bit about how you can buy tortillas “freshly made and piping hot.” Sounds awesome, right? I bet you wish you had a few burning your little fingers right now. But note that when I said to Shon, “Isn’t it insane that you can get five tortillas for just 12 cents?” his answer was, “No, that’s all they’re worth.” And I knew exactly what he meant.
Don’t misunderstand. We’re not tortilla haters, but tortillas by themselves are just not that impressive. At their best, when they’re warm, they’re pliable and slightly crisp and have a subtle toasted corn flavor. They’re good, but not great, and should you let them cool at all, they quickly turn into tough, flavorless, cardboard-like discs.
Nevertheless, tortillas have grown on me—and no, I’m not just referring to my muffin top (though they’ve made some headway there)—for I’ve learned that while they’re short on flavor and somewhat lacking in terms of texture, they do have their merits: They round out the occasional meager meal (restaurants often supplement small portions with extra tortillas), and they’re great for scooping up sauces from a sloppy plate. Plus, for just 12 cents, you can buy them “freshly made and piping hot,” directly from the hands of a Guatemalan señora… which is just plain awesome.
Curious about how they’re made? Here’s a quick overview:
1. Dried corn kernels are purchased in the market or delivered to the door of a tortillería.
2. The corn kernels are boiled with a cal (a chalky substance known as lime or calcium hydroxide) during a process called nixtamalization. Doing this makes it easier to grind the corn, increases its nutritional value, and improves its flavor. Once the corn is finished cooking and left to soak overnight, it’s rinsed.
3. The cooked corn is then taken to a mill. These are usually small, one-room operations with a single machine.
4. The corn is added to the top of the mill, along with a bit of water, and pushed through to be ground.
5. Now called masa, the ground corn is gathered up (its texture is similar to that of clay) and taken back home or to the tortillería.
7. Handfuls of masa are then formed into small, flat discs. Señoras do this by clapping the dough between their hands, flattening and shaping it as they go along; they can do this in their sleep. I’m much better off using a tortilla press, which my friend Ana (hands shown above and below) has more than encouraged me to use after seeing my [less than stellar] tortilla-shaping skills.
8. The uncooked tortillas are placed on a comal (a flat metal griddle–though they can also made of clay) that has been rubbed down with a bit of cal to make it nonstick. The tortillas are cooked until golden and lightly charred on one side and then flipped by hand. Señoras flip tortillas like it’s no big deal to touch a scorching hot pan. I flip tortillas while crying.
9. Once the tortillas are perfectly cooked and steaming hot, they’re piled into a blanket-lined basket to stay warm. Buen provecho!
My friend Ana, a tortilla-making master.