The Tortilla – More Than Just a Wrap

Make a salmon wrap.

Of late, most fast food outlets have added “wraps” to their menus. These “wraps” usually consist of four components: the “wrap” itself (usually a tortilla); a meat, chicken or fish component; a vegetable or salad component and; finally, one or more creamy or spicy sauces.

When buying or eating these “wraps” all attention is given to the filling, and none to the tortilla. It is treated much the same as the wrapping paper on a birthday present – nice to have, but unimportant enough to be torn off and discarded without any second thought.

And if that is your attitude toward the tortilla, you are committing a cardinal food sin and one for which you should repent. Now!

Thank you.

For the tortilla is a shining star in the Aztec galaxy of ingenuity and one that ties the modern world of food with its ancient roots almost 10,000 years ago – the time that the Aztecs and Mayas of Mexico started domesticating maize (Zea mayas) from the large, teosinte grass (Zea Mexicana) that grows in the open woodlands of Mexico.

It was Columbus who brought maize from the New World to Europe from where it continued to spread across the rest of the globe. Today, maize is the third largest crop for human consumption after wheat and rice.

Compared to other grains maize is large in size and has an unusually thick and tough hull protecting the starchy inner core. It was the Aztecs who, all those years ago, devised the solution: a pre-treatment process called nixtamalization. Nixtamalization involves cooking the whole maize kernels in water made alkaline by adding calcium hydroxide (builders lime, quick lime or cal) to it.

And that was the genius of the Aztecs. By boiling and soaking dried maize in water to which lime had been added, they managed to breakdown the tough outer hull (also called pericarb) to get to the nutritious inner core. It was much later that we discovered just how important nixtamalization is for human health.

Without it, the human body cannot absorb the essential nutrient, niacin or Vitamin B3. Niacin is one of five vitamins associated with pandemic deficiency disease and the direct cause of niacin deficiency or pellagra among some maize-eating populations of the world.

Ask the Spanish, they should know. When they brought maize back from the New World, they did not understand the benefits of the traditional method. Thus, they left that behind.

Taco with Salmon and Wasabi Cream

In doing so, they became the first victims of pellagra (1735) and soon afterward the Italians fell victim (1762). It was only during the late 1930’s that the true cause and cure for the disease was “discovered” in the USA.

For their achievement in this regard, Time Magazine named Tom Spies, Marion Blankenhorn, and Clark Cooper ‘Men of the Year’ in 1938. Thus, it took the West several centuries to replicate the achievements of the Mezo-american peoples.

Tortillas are big business today. Ten years ago it was estimated that the USA alone consumed around 85 billion tortillas annually. Given the demand, they are no longer made by hand although the dough is still called by its traditional name “masa”.

Its original Nahuatl name tlaxcalli is all but forgotten, yet its Spanish name tortilla (meaning little torta or little cake) is known the world over.

It is no longer made from maize only; wheat and even sorghum varieties are freely available. They are even used as substrates for painting.

But next time you go to your favorite fast food outlet to order your “wrap” (technically speaking it should be called a taco), remember its origins.

Eat it with respect for the ingenuity of the ancient civilizations that figured out how to do it and do it right. And, if you do, please do not call it a “wrap”. It is so much more.


Did your mouth water? Did you laugh or cry? Let me know!

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