Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tortilla Nation

If the American South is Cornbread Nation, then Mexico must be Tortilla Nation, for the tortilla seems to knit a meal together there in a way that spans region, class and taste.

Tortillas show up at every meal, and no, I don’t mean those flavorless dead-crunchy, boxed and bagged jobbies we find in grocery stores north of the border. Real tortillas are freshly made, hot, flavorful and ready to wrap around anything you care to eat.

And they’re ubiquitous. Consider the following dishes, all requiring tortillas either rolled, folded, used a base or served alongside: alambre, burrito, carnitas, cecina, chalupa, chimichanga, enchilada, enfrijolada, entomatada, flauta, gordita, huarache, machaca, quesadilla, sincronizada, and the famous and clever taco. And this is just a start.

While corn—ask for maize—seems to be preferred, tortillas may also be made of flour—harina. Occasionally tortillas will be crispy, but typically they’re soft. And I was surprised to discover that there are actually two distinguishable sides of the tortilla, a softer, more moist one and a harder, drier one. When you start to fill a tortilla, hold it with the softer side toward your hand (for a better grip, perhaps?), and the drier side inside.

There’s a saying in Mexico: “The sides of a good taco don’t touch.” I paraphrase. But it’s true, and I worked on making and eating several GOOD tacos during my stay. Essentially, you can put most anything inside. Whether you’re making a meal or a snack, you can’t go wrong with a fresh, hot tortilla filled with your choice of ingredients. (This taco included chicken, tomato, avocado and nopal, a cactus that has a taste and texture reminiscent of okra).

But tortillas are satisfying on their own, no fillings needed. Just rolling up and eating a tortilla all by itself is a nice little treat to have anytime. That's certainly a comfort when you've indulged too heavily or you've tangled with El Senor Tummy Bug!

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