What makes Mexican food so good?

What makes Mexican food so good? 2
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On a recent trip to London I was amazed to see how the number of “Mexican” eateries had grown once more.  It seems people just cannot get enough of Mexican food which would be all right and proper if they were actually eating Mexican food which, in general, they are not.  Not anywhere outside Mexico.  Not even in the US, and certainly not in Texas or London.

Mexican food is DELICIOUS.  Mexican food is SOPHISTICATED.  Mexican food has UNESCO recognition for its unique contribution to humanity. Sweet potatoes, yams, tomatoes, vanilla, cinnamon, cacao, amaranth, chiles and maize are just a few of the food groups the originated in Mexico and people have been cooking with them for a VERY LONG time. In fact, Mexico probably scores higher on “food introduced to the world” than any other country.  The Spanish arrived and introduced, among other good things, distillation, wheat and cows.  They also introduced bad things like gunpowder and Catholicism but those are longer, sadder stories.

Returning to lighter topics, let’s talk about FOOD.  Good Mexican food is so good because the ingredients that are available in Mexico are so good. One of the main events is tortillas.  It is a simple concept and a complicated practice. Today, let’s start with a whistle stop tour through tortillas including a free recipe for wheat flour tortillas.

In the beginning there was maiz.  Among other things (atole, tejuino, esquites, elotes, tamales, corundas, etc.) maiz is used, in Mexico, to make a smooth dough that is turned into things like tortillas, sopes, tlayudas, gorditas, tlacoyos, huaraches, panuchos and salbutes – the list goes on depending on where you are from. The most famous of these is tortillas, which  can accompany meals (much like bread accompanies meals), or can be used to make tacos, quesadillas, flautas, enchiladas (and their multiple cousins including but not limited to enfrijoladas, enmoladas, encacahuatadas) tostadas and totopos. Tacos, quesadillas, and flautas are like sandwiches in that the tortilla becomes the carrier for some kind of filling – which can be pretty much anything as long as it’s savoury.  They are differ in shape and cooking/serving style. Enchiladas (and their cousins) are tortillas, dipped in a sauce and folded around a savoury filling.  They are then laid out on a plate, bathed in the sauce and topped with sour cream and crumbled cheese and fresh coriander (cilantro). Tostadas are tortillas that are dry fried until they are crispy and then either served to accompany a meal, kind of like crackers or crisp bread, or come topped with a mountain of stuff that you try to eat without dropping it all over the floor.  Totopos are triangular shaped chips (or crisps) made of tortillas when they are a little old and are only good for cutting into wedge shapes and frying until they are crisp.  Had enough of guacamole and pico de gallo?  Fry up the totopos, cover them in a red or green sauce and pop a fried egg and/or some shredded chicken on top and you have chilaquiles.

Totopos with pico de gallo
Totopos with pico de gallo

So, you get it, corn rules.  Shortly after the Spanish arrived, however, they planted and began milling wheat. However, it was not until the corn crop failed some decades after the Spanish arrived, that the indigenous Mexicans started to make tortillas out of wheat flour, and those that are made out of wheat flour are either eaten to accompany a meal, or are turned into tacos or into this weird little thing called a sincronizada (like a fried ham and cheese sandwich only with wheat flour tortillas rather than bread).  They are not turned into quesadillas or totopos.  Nor is the wheat flour dough used to make sopes, gorditas, tlacoyos or tamales or anything else.  Those things are exclusively made out of corn dough.  In Mexican cooking terms, they are not made into burritos either. That is because burritos are not Mexican.

In real life, it’s not called corn FLOUR dough. It’s a corn dough (masa de maiz) and it makes tortillas de maiz. Similarly, is it not called WHEAT flour dough. It’s flour dough (masa de harina) that makes tortillas de harina. The explaination for the first is because you don’t use maiz flour to make corn tortillas.  What you actually do is nixtamalise the maiz before squashing it into a dough. To nixtamalise the maiz, you soak it in water that has a 3% chalk solution  – enough to get a PH of between 11 and 13 – and that breaks down the outer membrane of each kernel which makes the maiz digestible (that is to say we can extract the nutrients and we know what to do with the waste). Then, you remove the kernels from the cob and you squash them in a mortar and pestle or you grind them into a fine dough and then you turn them into all the things mentioned above. Flour tortillas, on the other hand are only ever made with wheat kernels that are finely ground (as for bread) into a flour.  Mix that flour with water (and some salt and fat) and you get a flour tortilla.

Tacos made with flour tortillas
Fish tacos made with flour tortillas
Tacos made with corn tortillas
Fish tacos made with corn tortillas

Enough, already, enough!  I hear you cry.  Where are the recipes?  Well, therein lies the problem.  It’s extremely fiddly to make proper corn dough. Almost nobody makes it at home and you will be lucky to be able to buy good masa or even good corn tortillas in Mexico now that industrial millers have completely taken over the market at both a commercial/industrial and retail level.  Outside of Mexico? Forget it. That is one of the reasons Mexican food outside of Mexico is so disappointing:  the corn tortillas are so bad and good Mexican food relies on good tortillas (among other things).  Sure, there are tortillas everywhere, but most of them are to real tortillas what the industrial loaf is to real bread.  What you can make at home are good flour tortillas.  In the absence of good corn tortillas, these will do and they won’t shame you.  Just say you come from the North where flour tortillas are the norm.  Your cooking universe, with flour tortillas alone is admittedly limited, but at least it will be authentic.

The main points to take away from all of this are:

1.  Corn dough is used to make many things, including tortillas
2.  Tortillas, made of corn dough, are used to make many things, including tacos
3.  Tortillas can be made of corn dough or (wheat) flour dough but the further uses of tortillas made of (wheat) flour dough are limited
4.  The process of making good corn dough is complicated and the opportunity to buy good corn dough is limited.  Certainly it is virtually non existent outside Mexico.
5.  Anyone can make good (wheat) flour tortillas so if the only thing you are craving is a taco, make the tortillas yourself rather than buy the rubbishy ones from the store.

Easy and authentic recipe for wheat flour tortillas


500 g white wheat (or wheat family) flour or finely ground whole wheat (or wheat family) flour – the higher quality the better for great flavour
250-300 grams of hot (not boiling but as hot as your hands can stand it) water
1/2 tsp salt
1 tablespoon of lard or good quality vegetable oil (do not substitute butter or margarine)
If you live about 2000 meters, add 1 tsp of baking powder.  If you live below 2000 meters, do not add it.  It will make the tortillas tough and hard unless you live above 2000 meters.

Note:  you can mix white and whole wheat and you can substitute spelt or any other wheat family flour if you want to


Mix the flour and the salt together and rub in the fat to make little crumbs.  Make a well in the mixture and pour in 250 g of the water as hot as you can stand it – you will mix this up by hand so clearly the water cannot be boiling but it is more than luke warm or “hand hot”.  Mix up the dough and then give it a little knead.  You don’t want to fully activate the gluten so just knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.  It should be pillowy and dry in that it should not stick to the bowl or your hands.  If you find it really hard to knead, add the left over water bit by bit until it is easier.

Cover the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes.

Get a “comal” or a frying pan really hot on the cooker.  Do not add any fat.

Flour the work surface well and flour a rolling pin.

Cut a golf ball sized piece of dough off the main dough ball and place it on the floury surface.  Roll it, flip it, roll it until it is as thin as you can get it.  Round is good but amoeba shaped won’t hurt you.  Now, place that in the frying pan, trying to keep it flat and then flip-flip-flip it.  It will probably puff up eventually and get little brown spots on the surface and then it’s done.  It only takes a minute or two. Place it on a tea towel and cover it with another tea towel.  Do the rest of the dough like this, stacking the tortillas up and wrapping them up in the towels as you go to keep them warm and soft. Serve immediately with the toppings of your choice once the last one is done.

Of a perfectly normal day, we eat tortillas for breakfast with scrambled eggs.  We pinch a tortilla from the pile and put it on our plates.  We spoon some scrambled eggs on top and maybe a slice or two of avocado and the sauce of our choice (Salsa?  I hear you say?  Indeed – one of the most beautiful, complicated and exhaustive topics on the planet so it has to wait for another day).  Andale!  We have made scrambled egg tacos!  We roll them up in the Mexican way so the filling does not drop out, and we eat with gusto.

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