When you think of tortillas, the first few images that probably come to mind are that of delicious tacos loaded with grilled chicken and vegetables or perhaps, a neatly wrapped burrito filled with tequila-lime chicken and black beans. Sounds absolutely delectable, doesn’t it?
Well, you would be surprised to know that in the year 2016, Americans ate over 4.5 billion tacos! This incredibly massive amount equates to 775-million pounds that is almost equal to the combined weight of two Empire State Buildings! How crazy is that?
Tortillas or better described as thin, round flatbreads or pancakes that are made of wheat flour, also known as unleavened cornmeal. They are a staple in Mexican and Central American Cuisine and are a foundation for most of their meals and food dishes. At one point in time, tortillas were also served as edible utensils that made other cutlery, especially forks obsolete.
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History of the Tortilla
Having been found in Mexico, tortillas got their name from the Spaniards who found the unleavened flat bread in Mexico and decided to give it this unique name. It comes from the Spanish word “torta” which translates to “little, round cake”.
Tortillas go as far back as 10,000 years ago during which they were a principal food for the Aztecs. Legend has it that tortillas were first introduced by a Mayan peasant in order to feed his hungry king. They were initially made from corn and the first-ever tortilla is believed to have been consumed by the Spanish conquerors.
After finding tons of gold and sending it back to Spain, these conquerors managed to reach the Mexican highlands where they stumbled across this unusual and unique kind of food. At that point in time, it was called ‘Tlaxcala, after which the Spanish people dubbed them as ‘tortillas’.
Back then, tortillas were made with the help of an ancient method that involved soaking corn kernels in a lime solution until the skin came off the corn easily. After that, the soaked kernels were turned into masa, all called corn dough. You would typically see women grinding the kernels with a stone slab.
Once the dough reached the desired consistency, it was separated into individual balls. Each ball was then placed between wetted hands, patted and flattened into a thin pancake, till it reached about eight inches in diameter. The flat pancake-like bread was then cooked on a burning griddle and served fresh and hot.
In today’s times, however, thanks to the advancements in modern machinery, manual work has been replaced by big-sized machines that do the job with great perfection. While the ingredients for making the basic tortilla still remain the same, it is the process and manufacturing that have undergone major changes.
Every single tortilla produced by these incredible machines is just perfect and uniform in size. Also, those times have gone when you would see simple corn or flour tortilla stacked on the racks in your favorite grocery store. You can now expect to see a whole range and variety of tortillas in different flavors and forms.
Basic Types of Tortillas
Ever since tortillas found their way to Central America and other parts of the world from Mexico, a variety of them has started to emerge in restaurants, markets, and grocery stores. Even those people at home who are not fond of store-bought tortillas are now making flavored tortillas and turning them into tacos, quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas, and a ton of other delicious food dishes.
These are some of the most basic types of tortillas that you are likely to find anywhere in the world.
These tortillas are simply made with the help of all-purpose flour, water, fat, and just about a pinch of salt. Also called wheat tortillas, these have been derived from the original corn tortillas. The fact that all-purpose flour comes from wheat is the primary reason why flour tortillas are also marketed as whole-wheat tortillas.
Many traditional Mexican recipes use lard which is basically fat from the abdomen of a pig which is first rendered and clarified in order to be used for cooking purposes. However, several modern recipes of flour tortillas substitute lard with vegetable oil or shortening.
In order to make the most delicious flour tortillas, it is essential to have a very consistent dough. You first need to whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and then mix on the lard or vegetable oil. Keep mixing with your fingers till the mixture look something like oatmeal.
Add the required amount of water until it transforms into a smooth dough. Cur it into individual golf ball-sized pieces, roll out each ball with a well-floured rolling pin, and then place the flattened dough onto a hot skillet till it is nice and golden.
You can pair this bubbly, golden flour tortilla with chipotle, spinach, jalapenos, or any of your favorite sidelines.
This variety of tortillas is probably the most popular of all, given how it was introduced thousands of years back in Mexico. It was a staple since pre-Columbian times majorly in Mesoamerican and North American cuisines.
The basis of these corn tortillas is “masa harina” which is a Spanish word for dough flour. The made ingredient of this dough is dried corn kernels that are first boiled in lime water and then turned into a fine paste through the process of grinding. The process of curing the corn in lime water helps the skin of the corn to come off easily. The removal of the skin allows it to be easily ground into a paste.
Once the paste has come together properly, it is allowed to dry first and is then mixed with water to make the dough, masa. Just like with flour tortillas, the corn dough is divided into individual balls that are rolled out thin and even, and then cooked on a hot griddle or skillet.
There are several variants of the basic corn tortillas, one of which is called güirilas that is popularly consumed in Nicaragua, the largest country in the Central American Isthmus. These tortillas are made from wheat corn and are super thick and sweet. They are commonly paired together with crumbled cheese which makes a single serving of these tortillas really filling.
Many Mexican dishes feature corn tortillas as their key ingredient, some of which are tortilla soup, enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, and flautas, to name a few. They are also served as a sideline with soups, stews, and grilled meat dishes.
Unlike the other types of tortillas, the Spanish tortilla is actually an open-faced omelet and the only feature it shares with its other tortilla cousins is the neat, round shape. It is a dish that has originally come from the Spanish cuisine where it is called ‘tortilla de papas’ or ‘tortilla de patatas’ in the native language. These varying names basically serve the purpose of distinguishing the Spanish omelet from the original, plain omelet.
The Spanish tortilla or omelet is served as an appetizer and is usually made with eggs and potatoes and is cooked in oil. Many people also use onion for that extra kick of flavor. The key to preparing the perfect Spanish tortilla is to get the potatoes right. You can either use small, diced potatoes or cut them into very thin slices.
Season them with your favorite spices and then lightly sauté them in a little olive oil. If you are an onion lover, add thinly sliced onions to the sautéed potatoes. The next step is to remove them from the heat, after which they need to be drained and mixed into well-beaten eggs.
Slowly and gradually pour this entire mixture into a pan and let it cook over medium heat till both the sides are a beautiful golden-brown shade. To take your Spanish tortilla up a notch in terms of flavor, you can add chopped or powdered garlic, and herbs like parsley, oregano, and coriander. Many people also add red and green peppers to their omelet to get that spicy effect.
This tortilla holds quite an interesting history behind its origin. According to an ancient tale, Spanish prisoners that were captured during the Portuguese Restoration War in 1665 basically learned this recipe and it was actually taken from them.
Following their release, it is believed that these prisoners brought some part of the Alentejo culture back to Spain that also included several food recipes. One of these recipes was a potato egg pie which was later converted by the people of Spain into the modern version of tortilla that we call the “Spanish Omelet”.
Variations of Tortillas
A fresh, hand-made tortilla is likely to get any Mexican food lover super excited and thrilled, but what is even more exciting is the creativity with tortillas that have emerged over the years. While the good old flour, corn, and Spanish tortillas are still ever-so-delicious and fun to eat, the new variations that have come about over the years will simply leave you craving for more.
Here are some of the most amazing variations of tortillas that will truly tantalize your taste buds and will probably even encourage you to come up with interesting variations of your own!
Blue Corn Tortillas
These tortillas are also commonly known as Hopi maize, Rio Grande blue, and Yoeme Blue. They are quite similar to the standard corn tortilla, except that they sport a nice, blue color that comes from the blue corn, one of its key ingredients.
The Blue Corn tortilla was originally introduced by several Southeastern tribes, the Hopi, as well as the Pueblo Indians that belonged to the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Blue corn is a staple in Mexican cuisine and has quite a sweet flavor.
These tortillas are made by whisking in dry ingredients that include baking soda, salt, sugar, and blue corn flour. Then, hot water is mixed with avocado oil and is added to the dry mixture. All the ingredients are combined into a pliable dough which is cut into ping-pong sized balls. The last step is to flatten the balls in the shape of a pancake and cook on a hot skillet.
Pan Arabe Tortillas
Many Mexican recipes and food dishes are inspired by the Middle Eastern food and pan Arabe tortillas are also one of the great inspirations. These are Arab-styled tacos that were invented in the 1930s in the city of Pueblo. They came about as a result of Lebanese immigrants making their way into Pueblo sometime during the 1900s.
They are now commonly known as “tacos Arabes” and basically feature a thin pita bread as the tortilla base which is called “pan arabe”. Compared to the traditional wheat or corn tortillas, they are thicker, softer, and sturdier in terms of texture and weight.
Pan arabe tacos typically use marinated pork cooked on a spit which is what makes it to delectable and flavorful. The pita-like tortilla is prepared in a similar manner as the other types of tortillas and is generously filled with grilled meat of your choice, lemon juice, salsa, and chipotle sauce.
Beet Root Tortillas
You can probably identify a beetroot tortilla by its gorgeous, vibrant reddish-pink color! Beetroot tortillas are a very tasty and unique tortilla variation and are made with organic beetroot juice. You can also natural beetroot powder which is made from 100% beets and provides a very subtle and incredibly mild flavor to the tortillas.
They are made exactly the same way as the standard corn or flour tortilla, except that you need to add the beetroot powder to your mixture when you are whisking together the dry ingredients.
The best thing about beetroot tortillas is that they are extremely healthy since beetroot is probably one of the most incredible and beneficial vegetables for the human body. These tortillas are packed with nutritional value and provide increased energy, enhance bone health, and help regulate your blood pressure. If you are a weight watcher and also a health-fanatic, perhaps, a single serving of beetroot tortillas every morning is an excellent option for you!
Hoja Santa Tortillas
These tortillas are made with hoja santa, a very popular herb that is often featured in cuisines from central and southern Mexico. The herb has quite a distinct and complex flavor that is often found hard to be described by most people.
Hoja santa tortillas use a blend of this Mexican pepper leaf in the tortilla masa which gives them a unique, pastel green color. The addition of the herb to the tortillas adds in a very strong, herby flavor that goes really well when paired with delicious taco fillings.
Just like the beetroot tortillas, hoja santa tortillas also have a great visual appeal and if anything, the green color is likely to tempt people to try out these incredible tortillas!
Tortillas Call For Creativity!
On their own, tortillas probably don’t appeal to many people given how simple they are. Even though they are absolutely delicious, there are ways that you can bring your own creative spin with them and make them even more tempting!
Tortillas are one of the most versatile food items and there is so much that you can do with them. Find out some amazing ways how you can turn your simple corn or flour tortilla wrap into something super flavorful and filling!
Are you a fan of wrapped and tightly packed foods that are super easy to eat? If yes, you will really love burritos! These are best described as meal-in-a-wrap and you can fill them up with just about anything you like! Simply take a corn tortilla, fill it with lime chicken, beans, a drizzle of your favorite sauce, wrap it in a piece of butter paper, and devour it whenever you want!
If you love crispy foods that make a sharp sound when you bite into them, tostadas are what you should try next. These are made with crispy tortillas that are often layered with chorizo, pickled red onions, and black beans. The soft filling coupled with the crispy tortillas offers an amazingly crunchy and delightful culinary experience.
This is another super popular tortilla-based dish of the Mexican cuisine. Typical tortilla soup is made with a brothy tomato soup topped with coriander and crispy tortilla chips. This soup makes an excellent appetizer for a three-course dinner affair.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise considering how tacos are one of the most popular, ever-green tortilla-based dishes that are thoroughly enjoyed not just in the Mexican cuisine, but also worldwide. Tacos are all about that flat tortilla folded around a tasty filling. Whatever you put inside a taco, it will definitely look and taste amazing!
You are probably salivating by now at the thought of those tortilla wraps loaded with incredible fillings that include an assortment of thinly-sliced, juicy meat, a mixture of sauces, and a variety of different crunchy vegetables. If you have never had these varieties of tortillas, it is time to head out to your favorite Mexican restaurant, or perhaps, stir up a Mexican culinary affair inside your home kitchen!