Nixtamalizacion, Tex-Mex, Heirloom Corn, Chicano-Style: A Southern California tortilla glossary

If you've been following along with Gustavo's Great Tortilla Tournament, you've probably stumbled across some new terminology. Here's a glossary to help decipher what's being discussed.

Photo by Marco Verch.

We’re now to our ¡Eso! Eight, the final ocho in our KCRW Great #TortillaTournament (don’t forget to RSVP to our grand finale September 16), and I just realized something: we need a tortilla glossary.

Throughout the tournament, I’ve thrown out terms or words to describe the dizzyingly different approaches to making what most Southern Californians assume are just corn or flour tortillas.

It’s never been that simple, but the past decade has seen an explosion in varieties and methods. And as the trend of better tortillas continues to spread from homes to manufacturers to stores, here’s a glossary so ustedes, gentle readers can have a better grasp of what we’re talking about.

First, some general terms:

TORTILLA

Diminutive of torta, which signifies “flour, with other ingredients, in a round form cooked over low heat,” according to the Real Academia Española. In other words, a cake. Wait, what? Yep, kids: “tortilla” the word is originally Spanish and is actually more of a frittata, as any shocked Chicano who ordered one in Madrid will tell you.

What we now know as a “tortilla”—that is, a Mexican flatbread made of corn or wheat flour—was called “tlaxcalli” by the Aztecs. The Spaniards, because they didn’t know any better, deemed them “tortillas”—and now you know the REST of the story.

MASA

The foundational foodstuff of Mexico. From this corn dough emerges corn tortillas, sopes, panuchos, chalupas, tamales, stuffed gorditas, huaraches (the meal, not the sandal) and so much more. Masa can only happen after…

NIXTAMALIZACIÓN

An 1836 lithograph of tortilla production in rural Mexico. Photo credit: Public domain.

The process by which corn is turned into masa. Corn must be nixtamalized because eating too much raw maize gives eaters pellagra, a wasting disease. Nixtamalización happens by soaking dried corn kernels in a mixture of water and cal, which creates an alkalized solution. That, a wash, and cooking softens the kernels and removes the toxins, but also adds calcium and potassium, niacin, among other minerals: one of the world’s greatest small miracles.

You can nixtamalize at home, but it’s an arduous task. The best tortillerias in Southern California nixtamalize daily in giant vats. But many tortillerias unfortunately have increasingly relied on…

MASECA

Dehydrated masa, and what too many Mexican cookbooks call for if you want to make homemade tortillas. It has no flavor, period, and a bunch of preservatives. Many tortillerias secretly spike their own masa with Maseca so their tortillas have a longer shelf life (masa and corn tortillas with no preservatives go bad notoriously fast). Even just a sprinkle of Maseca sours any corn tortilla it touches, and furthers the Galactus that is…

GRUMA

The largest tortilla maker in the world, they make Maseca and manufacture the top-selling corn and flour tortillas in the United States: Guerrero and Mission, respectively. Next time you go to a Latino supermarket (or really, any non-Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods), notice how Gruma’s products dominate the tortilla section—and never buy them again. A Taste article this year telling called Gruma the “tortilla cartel,” and we’ll leave it at that.

TORTILLA MACHINES

Giant contraptions that allow tortillas to mass-produce but often lead to a drop in quality. The epicenter for tortilla machines in the United States, interestingly enough, is San Antonio, hinting at its former title as the city with the largest population of Mexicans in the United States outside Mexico.

TORTILLAS HECHO A MANO

“Hand-made tortillas.” Almost always tastes better than tortillas from machines—but what good are they if the restaurant uses Maseca for their masa?

Now, for styles:

HEIRLOOM CORN

This decade, restaurants like Guerilla Tacos, Broken Spanish and Taco Maria have sourced the corn for their masa from brokers like Masienda, which work with farmers in Mexico to grow non-GMO corn from heirloom strains kept among families for generations. The earthy taste obliterates any competition—two of our four corn finalists, Kernel of Truth and Taco Maria, work exclusively with heirloom corn. And Masienda is slowly entering the retail market.

GORDITAS

Miramar corn tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

“Fatties,” to be blunt. Not to be confused with the stuffed dish, these are corn tortillas that are thicker than usual and have a more robust flavor as a result. More tortilla makers are starting to offer gorditas as the style spreads—my favorite remains Miramar Tortilleria from Eastlos.

TEX-MEX FLOUR TORTILLAS

In Texas, flour tortillas are a different species from what we’re used to in Southern California. Many recipes call for baking powder, for starters, and have as much lard as chicharrón. The result is thick, flaky things that often taste like biscuits (the best widespread brand is La Paloma White Wings, which ships their mix across the United States).

Californians have long ridiculed the Tex-Mex tortilla, but it’s an unfair comparison. The only contestant in our #TortillaTournament that makes Tex-Mex-style flour is HomeState, and I’m not surprised that they’re one of our eight finalists, so delicious they are. Don’t hate until you’ve tried!

CHICANO-STYLE TORTILLAS

I’ll admit it: I’m inventing this category right now. But if you eat enough Mexican food in East Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and other areas with longstanding Chicano communities, and eat other styles the way I have, you’ll realize that Cal-Mex restaurants prefer their flour tortillas thin and dusty, the better to wrap around burritos. I’m thinking the beauties of Carrillo’s in the San Fernando Valley, or the tortillas Al & Bea’s in Boyle Heights uses to craft their legendary bean-and-cheese burritos. More research needs to be done on this style, and how it’s evolved—or, conversely, remained in yummy amber.

SONORA-STYLE TORTILLAS

 

La Azteca flour tortillas. Photo by Christopher Ho.

If heirloom corn tortillas are all the rage among the tortilla cognoscenti in Southern California, then Sonoran tortillas are the flip-side. It refers to the northern Mexican state, the purported birthplace of flour tortillas. They’re regarded as the best flour tortillas of them all: thin as a napkin yet sturdy, and redolent of wheat.

 

Historically, the most famous tortillas from here are the sobaqueras, tortillas bigger than a basketball hoop and traditionally folded up for your meal. You can’t find them yet in Southern California, but restaurateurs have brought the style to Los Angeles over the past couple of years and immediately sparked a trend (the pioneer was Esdras Ochoa, of Mexicali Taco Co. and Salazar) that has now even spread to New York. Tellingly, two of the four flour tortilla finalists make Sonoran tortillas, La Monarca Bakery and the appropriately named Sonoratown, both whom also work with heirloom wheat producers in Sonora to get the harina (flour) for their tortillas. And a third, Burritos La Palma, is somewhat in that style and just as delicious?

Questions, comments, want me to expand the glossary? Email your tortilla tutor at mexicanwithglasses@gmail.com!