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The Origin of Tortillas


As I attempt to eat these chips and salsa while drinking a margarita without making a mess on my laptop, I will also attempt to make your tummies growl with this peek into the origin of the ever so loved – Tortilla.


First, we must delve into some early history – so take notes, there will be a quiz when were finished. In the 16th century, the Aztec Empire in Mexico was ambushed by a fleet of Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés. When his army anchored off the coasts of Mexico, Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, sent them lavish gifts and plentiful nourishings in hopes to keep them at bay and away from their capital city. Well, that plan sure backfired. The gifts of gold and such just compelled Cortes and his men want to search for their original destination – and they went a huntin’. After a period of devastating battles, Cortes had claimed victory and the capitol was destroyed and replaced with Spanish monuments and laws. But as much as they changed the appearance of prior Aztec region, they could not demolish the deep and rich culture which thrives even today. And part of this culture was indeed the wonderful foods that had been around for centuries. And may I now, introduce the loved…the versatile…the tasty – Tortilla (take a bow, tortilla).


Maize (now known to us as corn) was a principal food for the Aztecs, Incas, Mayans and countless groups of North American Indians. It supplied them with starch and protein which is what gave them their necessary energy.  No part of the grain was wasted and the Incas even were known to produce ‘chica’ which was a beer made from maize.


The maize was typically dried and ground into a powdery substance known as mesa. In those days this was the process the women endured making the beloved tortilla:


          A woman working with a stone slab known as ‘metate’ would grind the soaked kernels into mesa.


          She would then take a piece of mesa, about the size of a golf ball, with her wet hands and pat the dough until it is flattened into a round cake less than an 1/8 of an inch thick.


          The cakes (raw tortillas) would be tossed onto a hot pan, known as ‘comal’, for just a few seconds on each side. They would brown slightly – and viola!


Used as bread, plates, forks and spoons there were and are many ways to eat a tortilla which is commonly referred to as ‘the bread of Mexico’.  Ohhh, those tacos filled with meats and cheeses…or those burritos stuffed with beans and rice…even the wonderfully saucy enchiladas – tortillas have brought joy to our taste buds time and time again.


Stated by The Tortilla Association (TIA), “Thanks in part to the widespread popularity of Mexican and Southwestern cuisines, Americans love tortillas. In fact, tortillas are more popular today in the U.S. than all other ethnic breads, such as bagels, English muffins and pita bread.”


They also found in an Industry survey in 2002 that tortillas gained 32 percent of the sales for the United States Bread Industry and that they followed bread sales by a mere 2 percent!


Not too long ago, grocery store tortillas came in two forms – flour, being the soft white kind and corn, being the yellow, crunchy variety. Today there is a plethora of types available: whole wheat, gluten free, roasted red pepper, jalapeno, tomato and garlic, low carb and so many more. And this isn’t even including the shelves stocked with copious assortments of tortilla chips.


Perhaps you would like to make your own tortillas. For you adventurous, kitchen lovers out there, here are a few recipes:



From here is a very simple recipe for homemade corn tortillas:



1 c. cornmeal
1 c. boiling water
1 tsp. salt



Pour boiling salted water over cornmeal and stir. When cornmeal is cool enough to harden, shape into then flat cakes and cook on an un-oiled hot griddle until brown on both sides. Makes 8 servings.




From this is recipe for flour tortillas:

 2 cups all purpose flour
 1/4 cup vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
 1/2 tsp. salt
 1/2 tsp. baking powder
 3/4 cup warm water

In a bowl, blend flour, salt, baking powder and shortening until it resembles fine meal.

Add warm water, a little at a time, to flour mixture and toss until liquid is incorporated. Water amount will vary with different flour types.

Form dough into a ball and kneed on a floured surface until dough is smooth and elastic. Divide, and make 12 smaller balls. Cover and let stand at least 30 minutes.

Cooking Tortilla:
Roll each ball of dough on a floured surface to make 6 or 7 inch sized tortillas. Place on a pre-heated griddle or cast iron skillet and cook till medium golden on both sides.

Remove to a basket lined with a cloth towel or put between towels until cool. After the tortillas have cooled completely, store them in a plastic bag. This recipe will make approximately 12 flour tortillas.


Tortillas have become to bread as salsa has become to ketchup. Mexican traditions are deliciously becoming more mainstream every year. As our tables and stores reflect that, so do our pallets. Needless to say, I will be having Mexican food tonight because in my attempts to make your tummy growl…mine is sounding like a lion over here!!


6 thoughts on “The Origin of the Tortilla – Valley Scene Magazine

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  2. I believe that the tortilla dough is called (and was called ) ‘masa’, not ‘mesa’.  ‘Mesa’ means ‘table’ in Spanish.

  3. I have a super simple flour tortilla recipe.  All equal parts so if it is
    2 Cups                            all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons                   Salt
    2 tablespoons                Baking powder
    2 tablespoons                Shortening (crisco or even lard if you can find it)
    2 cups                            Warm water
    Put all ingredients into a mixing bowl.  Slowly add water till you feel the consistancly of the dough is not too sticky and not too dry.  Cover with a kitchen towel.  Let rest for about 5 minutes.  You can add more flour if you have too much water.  Flour the counter or wherever (flour rolling pin also) you are going to roll the dough out, so that the dough does not stick.  Roll out dough about a 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.  Place on a flat cast-iron skillet and toast each side.  About 10-12 tortillas (Depending on size)
    My mom gave me this recipe and it is pretty good and you can forget it.  You can also use this to make Navajo fry bread.  The difference would be in the cooking method.  
    For frybread you heat up oil and test the heat with a little piece of the dough.  If the dough bubbles the oil and sizzles right back up to the top, the oil is ready.  You will definitly need a big pot that can hold a couple cups of oil.  The process of making the balls is a little different also.  You will need and stretch the dough in your hand till the dough is very thin and round (this takes lots of practice).  Carefully lay the dough circle in the hot oil.  Let brown and turn over to brown the other side. 
    Constantly watch the tortilla or frybread when making it, so that they don’t burn.  Enjoy! Jen 

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