The Mesoamerican food we’ve all been waiting for.
Unlike many ancient foods we recreate here, tortillas survive as a popular staple to this day, beyond their birth place and all around the world. Sure, there are other foods of the ancient world that are still part of modern diets, unspecific generalities like”soup” or “bread”. But corn tortillas, made of nothing but nixtamalified maíz, salt and water and cooked in seconds on a hot griddle, come down to us as is.
Tortillas were of course a staple of all the famous societies of Ancient Mexico, including the Olmec, the Maya, and the Aztecs. Both wealthy and poor people ate them regularly across history. Only tamales surpass them as the aboriginal food of Mesoamerica.
Then, as is still the case now, you don’t need more than a little salsa to top it off. This was usually some kind of pure chili paste, but avocados could be involved as well. For generations, Mesoamericans rightly associated tomatoes with nightshade but wrongly believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Eventually though, they caught on, and must have incorporated them into their “tacos”.
EASY FRESH CORN TORTILLAS
(makes about 10)
400g field (or Dent) Corn, sweet or popcorn will not work
6g Cal (calcium hydroxide or pickling lime)
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
CHARRED TOMATO SALSA
2-3 large tomatoes (or mix of large and cherry tomatoes)
2-4 chilis (pictured cayenne and jalapeno)
2-3 Spring Onions (or 1 small white onion and 1 bunch scallions)
salt to taste
Avocado and beans recommended as authentic accompaniments!
The night before, tamalify your corn kernels. Combine raw corn, water,and cal in a pot, and bring up to a simmer. Cook on low for 30-45 minutes, until the kernels are mostly cooked through but still have a raw, white, and starchy interior. Remove from the heat, cover and let soak overnight.
The next day, rinse the corn under running water and rub it between your hands to remove most of the bran. The corn will turn a lighter shade, but doesn’t have to be perfect. Grind very thoroughly into masa in a mortar and pestle or a food processor until as fine as possible. Add water a couple tablespoons at a time, and bring together with your hands, until you have a smoothish dough about the consistency of playdoh, dryer than a tamale batter but not as wet as most bread doughs.
Cover with a damp towel to prevent drying out.
Now get your comal ready. I wasn’t able to find an authentic Mexican clay comal, so I used my cast iron wok as a substitute. You can use any cast iron pan or griddle, as long as it can get really really hot!
So hot in fact, you want to cook outside and place your pan right on a pile of hot coals or directly over an open flame. Let preheat for several minutes until smoking.
You want to eat your tortillas as fresh as possible, so make the salsa first. With no oil, add the chilies and onions and stir frequently, until blackened, charred, and wrinkly. Remove and repeat with your tomatoes.
Add a tiny splash of water and wipe out the comal with a clean towel. Rough chop all charred ingredients and mash them up in your mortar and pestle to desired consistency. Season with salt.
Now for the main event. Shape the tortillas by hand. Divide your masa into 10 pieces and shape into smooth balls. flatten into a disk between your hand and a table, then smack the dough back and forth against your palms to continue stretching and flattening the tortilla. If necessary, carefully squeeze in uneven spots to achieve a thin consistency.
With the comal smoking hot again, directly add tortillas witthout oil, and cook for about a minute on each side. Flip over with your hand like a true badass, Aztec abuelita, or just use a spatula.
Pile tortillas on top of each other and wrap in a towel to steam a little and keep warm.
Mmmm, you truly don’t need much else. But I went ahead and made some refried beans and sliced avocado to complete the plate.
The first taco didn’t last long. Neither did the second, third, fourth, or fifth. Fresh corn tortillas are meant to vanish quickly.