Cooking Like A Mexican

Tortilla Soup
BY: ALE BORBOLLA

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Almost everyone I know loves a good tortilla soup, and it’s a good dish to describe as staple Mexican cuisine. Tortilla soup is served in many restaurants but not everyone serves it the “right” way, yes; there is a right and a wrong way of serving it- not only making it. To talk about tortilla soup we must first talk about tortillas.

Their appearance takes us back to the year 500 BC. When prehispanic settlers needed to prepare foods that were easier to chew and digest. It is said that tortillas were born in Tlaxcala -located in East-Central Mexico, in the altiplano region, bordered by the states of Puebla to the north, east and south, México to the west and Hidalgo to the northwest. It is the smallest state of the republic, accounting for only 0.2 percent of the country's territory. Us Mexicans have a joke about Tlaxcala like nobody knows where it is or what people do there or if it even exists. Anyway, Tlaxcala comes from the Nahuatl word Tlaxcallān, which means "place of corn tortillas." The Aztec glyph that referred to this place has both elements, two green hills and two hands holding a corn tortilla.

According to the myths back in the day, the first tortilla was made combining fresh and dry corn to satisfy one of the many gods we had in pre-Columbian times. Three thousand years later, the people started using stone containers to boil the maize they gathered from the outskirts of their village, which changed the properties of the grain and tortillas were common. For example, in the region of what is now Oaxaca, evidence was found that proved tortillas were present since 1500 to 500 BC, by the discovery of clay griddles that were used to cook them. In the first Indian chronicles, tortillas were described as corn bread. Mayans also had tortillas and in the Popol Vuh (the Mayan Book of Counsel) masa is mentioned as a corn paste with men and women’s bone dust which was used by the gods to create humanity.

The process of making corn tortillas had changed very little since ancient times, until the tortilla machine was invented in 1904, which made it faster, easier and cheaper since tortillas are made serially but the nixtamalization process remained the same. Ninety four percent of Mexicans eat tortillas every day and contrary to popular belief, tortillas will not make you fat nor are unhealthy.

Nixtamalization is a process for the preparation of maize (corn), or other grain, in which the corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater (but sometimes wood ash lye washed, and then hulled. This process is known to remove up to 97–100 percent of aflatoxins from mycotoxin-contaminated corn.

Nixtamalized maize has several benefits over unprocessed grain: it is more easily ground; its nutritional value is increased; flavor and aroma are improved; and mycotoxins are reduced. Lime and ash are highly alkaline: the alkalinity helps the dissolution of hemicellulose, the major glue-like component of the maize cell walls, and loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the maize.

Some of the corn oil is broken down into emulsifying agents (monoglycerides and diglycerides), while bonding of the maize proteins to each other is also facilitated.

The divalent calcium in lime acts as a cross-linking agent for protein and polysaccharide acidic side chains. As a result, while cornmeal made from untreated ground maize is unable by itself to form a dough on addition of water, the chemical changes in masa allow dough formation.

These benefits make nixtamalization a crucial preliminary step for further processing of maize into food products, and the process is employed using both traditional and industrial methods, in the production of tortillas and tortilla chips (but not corn chips), tamales, hominy, and many other items.

Ingredients:

8 ripe tomatoes

½ onion

2 garlic cloves

1 sprig of epazote

1 pasilla chile (pasilla is not hot but you can opt out)

10 tortillas

2 cups of chicken broth (homemade is always better)

1 cup of sour cream

1 small piece of “queso fresco”

4 tablespoons of oil for the soup

1 cup of oil to fry

1 avocado

Pork rinds (to taste, I prefer the big pieces that don’t have any fat stuck to them)

Salt to taste

Pocedure:

    •    On a Comal or a hot skillet with NO oil, grill the tomatoes, onion, garlic and chile pasilla until lightly charred.

    •    In a blender, puree the tomatoes, garlic, onion, only one half of the chile pasilla, a pinch of salt and chicken broth until smooth.

    •    In a pot, warm the oil and strain the soup base. Bring to a boil and taste to verify seasoning.

    •    Cut the tortillas into ¼ inch strips, nothing longer than an inch and a half and fry in oil until crispy. The secret here is to have super-hot oil and strain the tortilla strips on a napkin or brown paper for lower oil residue.

    •    Thinly slice the pasilla chile, crumble the queso fresco and slice the avocado for serving.

    •    In a soup bowl, place a handful of the fried tortillas, pork rinds, avocado slices, queso fresco, a dollop of sour cream and a few slivers of the pasilla chile and bring to the table.

    •    Serve the soup over the arranged ingredients the second before eating it, otherwise the tortilla turns into a mush too early.

Enjoy!