The savior of anyone craving Mexican food on the go, the tortilla is one of the most iconic components of traditional Mexican dishes. How to spot authentic Mexican food straight from native traditions? A corn tortilla -- not wheat or flour. Why's this? The history is actually fascinating and starts before 'tortilla' or even corn as we know it existed.
Ever heard the time "megabiodiverse"? It's a descriptor for a region that carries native examples of a majority of known Earth species. Although many people mistakenly picture Mesoamerica as a barren desert, between 60-70% of known species on the planet are in Mexico, making it one of the top four "megabiodiverse" countries. Corn, for example, was first cultivated in Mesoamerica, not Europe!
Corn Didn't Exist?
Before corn, there was teosinte, or teocintle. It's a relative of corn that still exists in the fields of Oaxaca today, but people mostly avoided its kernels and instead chewed its sweet stalk. Based on the historical and anthropological evidence, we think that the ancient people of the Sierra Madre Mountains started to cultivate teosinte crops in a way that brought them closer to modern day corn crops.
Please Sir, May I Have Some Masa?
Mesoamerican peoples soon began to take this new corn, dry it, and grind it down into a masa (corn dough) they could form into small, flat cakes, cook quickly on a hot stone griddle, and pair with a vast number of local dishes. Women and girls would spend years learning how to make masa perfectly. Reportedly, Mayan legend says that peasants made these cakes to appease the hunger of their powerful king.
Nobody Expects The Spanish Tortillas
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors observed the Aztecs making flat corn bread or cakes in the manner described above. As the cooked masareminded the Spanish of cakes, they dubbed them tortillas, a derivative of torta, Spanish for cake. The Spanish preferred their ingredients from home and began making similar tortillas but with wheat and flour as they took over the continent and spread influence. Interestingly, the practice of making tortillas was popularized back in the Spanish homeland as well.
So now you know who to thank for your favorite vessel for fat burritos, fried chimichangas, and other Mexican food on the go. Aficionados still say that a fresh authentic corn tortilla is the best experience, so don't skip trying it if you have the chance.