Cooking Like A Mexican

Ceremonial Tortillas
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

Oh, do I have a beautiful story for you guys. Ceremonial or sacred tortillas; traditional in the Hñahñu (nee-a-nee-oo) communities.

Tortillas are made from creole corn, and the stamp used to decorate them is made from mesquite wood. The ink used comes from beets, spinach, a medicinal herb called muicle, and cochinille. Ceremonial tortillas are not only beautiful but also healthy.

ceremonialtorti.JPGEl Llanito (little plaines in Spanish) is a very small community in Dolores Hidalgo, in the center of the mainland where all sorts of corn grows- black, white, purple and blue corn are some of their main crops. The process of transforming the corn has been deeply linked to the feminine chores, and the making of sacred tortillas is an inherited skill from mother to daughter, or in the worst-case scenario, the daughter in law. In both cases, the woman picked to receive such knowledge must be humble, generous, solidary and respectful of traditions. The commitment is to the family, that not only will the tortillas continue to be made in the family, but also in the community. This inheritance also includes the family stamp, which will have a religious symbol, or flowers and or animals, giving the family an identity.

Ceremonial tortillas are consumed during holidays; the tradition started with the first harvests of the season but are now used in baptisms, first communions, weddings, quinceañeras or any of those big parties where religion is involved.

The making of the tortillas is always a collective event, either just the family or including neighbors and friends. Tasks are distributed among the participants, there must be at least three women. One will make the tortilla and put it in the comal (a flat iron disk where tortillas are cooked or warmed), another woman will take the tortilla halfway through its cooking time, stamp it and put it back in the comal to finish cooking and a third woman is supervising and placing cooked and stamped tortillas in a special basket, called a taxcal.

To make the stamping ink, several insects, spices and plants can be used and give a wide range of colors. Muicle is a medicinal plant that is harvested around the corn plantation and gives a deep purple hue. Cochinille, which is a parasite in nopales (edible cacti plant) has been used since always, and gives a strong red color. Sunflowers are used for yellow; hibiscus for pink, weeds for green and mixes in between.

The Otomí people were fond in studying the origin of the universe, which was strongly tied to nature and particularly; corn. Even though Otomí people were evangelized, they kept their belief system and reorganized their religious beliefs. Being Catholic, their rituals are still indigenous and the celebrations for example, for the Holy Cross are conveniently coincidental with agricultural production cycles.

Festivities start with the people asking for a good harvest and end with the people thanking the gods for the good harvest they got. This is where the sacred tortillas take the stage, as offerings.

Otomí people have a deep tie with the harvesting cycle of the corn, even the babies are taken to the corn fields, so they start to love the earth from an early stage. The elders are known to speak and communicate with corn, animals and even rocks.

I will give you the recipe to make tortillas. It’s not as hard as you would think, if you follow the steps.

Corn is nixtamalized and ground into dough, eventually resulting in stacks of fresh, warm corn tortillas for less than a buck.

Ingredients:

2of MASECA (corn flour) NOT CORNMEAL OR ANYTHING ELSE.

1/2

1.5 cupswater

 

Procedure:

Add the 2 cups of corn flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a mixing bowl.

Add one cup of the warm water and stir until all the water is absorbed. It should look like clumpy sand.

Start adding the rest of the warm water little by little, a couple tablespoons at a time, and stirring regularly.

The idea is to keep adding water until the flour turns into a dough.  At that point you can pick it up with your hands and knead it together.

But there is some trial and error along the way as the exact amount of water used can vary.  If the dough is sticking to your hands, there is probably too much water.  You can fix it by adding some additional flour to the mixture and kneading.  If the dough isn’t forming a cohesive ball you probably need to add a bit more water.

Separate the dough into golf ball sized chunks, rolling between the hands to form a smooth ball.

You’ll need something to put on either side of the dough ball to prevent it from sticking when flattening, a cut open plastic bag will work great.

If you got the dough right, the tortilla peels off the plastic effortlessly.  If it’s sticking there is probably too much water in the dough.

And don’t worry if you don’t have a tortilla press, you can use a skillet or bowl that has a flat bottom, just make sure to have a plastic bag on both sides of the ball- the flattening surface and the flattening device.

To cook; on a comal flip the tortilla 10 seconds after putting it on the heat and then cook each side for 1-2 minutes or until brown spots appear.  The idea is that those first 10 seconds will seal in some of the heat as it’s cooking. The good tortillas will puff up, but this takes practice.