I am a connoisseur of Mexican and Central American cuisine and have eaten a fair share of tortillas in my life. The problem is, most of the tortillas available in America are flour-based and virtually tasteless.
Flour-based tortillas were an invention of Europeans who colonized North and South America. These conquerors were afraid of corn and brought wheat from across the ocean; they ruined tortillas forever. Proper tortillas are corn-based, full of texture, and delicious.
Corn tortillas are the staple throughout Mexico and Central America, where corn is the crop of choice. Here in America, corn is grown for fuel and sweeteners, not consumption. However, wheat is the States’ crop, so we’re stuck with these bland, bleached, bogus knock-offs.
There’s a tortillaria around the corner from our house that sells a stack of handmade corn tortillas for a few dollars. They are much better than the flour-based frisbees available in every grocery store. Still, these tortillas don’t hold a candle to the ones made in rural Guatemala.
You can’t travel very far in Guatemala without seeing women in traditional Mayan dress standing next to an open-flame stove patting out tortillas. Each pat within the palm flattens the cornmeal into place and brings out the yellow puck’s flavor. But that’s the final step in a process that begins the day before.
The corn is picked, shucked, and the kernels are removed from the cob. The kernels are then soaked overnight to let moisture permeate throughout. In the morning, before the sun rises, women all over the country carry a basket of corn to their local grinder. The roars of lawn-mower-based grinders mix with roosters to announce the start of each day. The women pay a small fee, and their corn kernels are turned into cornmeal. This meal is used to make tortillas at breakfast and dinner that day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The tortilla is a staple at every meal, and there is a lot of time spent creating each one. The slight char on each unique creation enhances the flavor of the corn. That flavor then enhances the eggs and beans or chicken and broth the tortilla accompanies. This flavor isn’t possible with bland, mass-produced flour tortillas. This flavor is only possible when getting to the root of the dish and creating it traditionally.
I read Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat to experience the story that birthed the sitcom. Instead, I joined a conversation about race, hip hop, and food culture. Huang uses food to tell the story of his life — of his immigrant family and the flavors and techniques they brought from Taiwan; of growing up in Orlando and constantly finding himself outside the culture; of ultimately finding his voice and opening Baohaus in New York City.
Huang explains a culture’s food was created for a reason, and you have to let those roots show. The delicious bao and pork he serves at Baohaus are cooked in the traditional Taiwanese way he learned from his mother. It’s upon the traditional foundation that Huang then plays with the ingredients.
There is a reason that tortillas are so much better in Guatemala than they are in the States, and it’s not just a corn vs. flour thing. The ingredients and the process — minus the addition of gas-powered grinders — are the same now as they were a millennium ago. The process exists for a reason: it works. There’s no sense in changing it. The culture of Guatemala shines through its tortillas, just as Huang’s Taiwanese roots shine through his bao.
Understanding tradition, history, and rules are an important part of any endeavor. Sitting down to write without an understanding of grammar and mechanics may work for you, but the results will be subpar. Cooking without a basic understanding of flavors and how heat affects ingredients will not an edible dish make.
Learn the basics, let the roots show, and then find your voice.