Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - Alex has been working in his family's tortillaria in El Tuito since he was ten years old. He happily greets me every time I bring folks by to see the whole process of making tortillas.
The first stop is the back room, where 5 kilogram bags of dried kernels are stacked floor to ceiling as testament to the thousands of tortillas they produce in a day. He tells us the best corn for making tortillas is from Sinaloa, Mexico. Most corn grown around Puerto Vallarta is field corn best used for animal feed.
Corn or maize (Zea mays) is thought to have been domesticated in Mesoamerica over 7000 years ago from a wild grass known as teosinte. There are more than 42 different types of maize in Mexico, each of which has several varieties whose number is estimated at more than 3,000!
The characteristics of each variety depend upon soil conditions, humidity, altitude, and how cultivated. The word maize is derived from the indigenous nahuatl language and is used universally for this agricultural crop. Corn has many other uses, like feed corn and sweet corn, but it's all some type of maize.
There are three cement, gas-fired, soaking tubs full of maize. Alex tells us one tub holds 8 bags of the Sinaloa corn that soaks and cooks in the heated water for about eight hours. Limewater (calcium hydroxide) is added to the water to alkalinize it in an ancient process created by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations known as nixtamalization which removes 97-100% of aflatoxins from mold-contaminated corn. This process also helps unlock proteins and remove the husks so the corn can be more easily ground. Corn not nixtamalized has led to niacin deficiencies known as pellagra and protein malnourishment such as kwashiorkor.
After cooking, the kernels are washed and ready for grinding. This prepared grain is called nixtamal or hominy. It is sold at the tortillaria for use in making pozole, menudo, and other foods. Ground as a dry flour it is masa used for tamales. After mixing with a bit of water, the dough is made into huge dough balls for introduction into the hopper of the tortilla machine.
Tortillas are then ejected onto a conveyer belt, passed over gas flames, and finally delivered as perfectly round thin tortillas. Alex's family, the Silvas, have four tortillarias in Tuito which make about 40,000 tortillas a day. One kilo is about 36 tortillas. They make at least 1200 kilos/day so more than 40,000!
Tortillas are not only available to the families in town, but delivered by car, truck, moto, and bus to the entire Cabo Corrientes region. Insulated chests are always stacked along the wall waiting to be filled with orders of tortillas which will stay warm until their delivery.
Blue corn tortillas are sometimes available in town if the Tarahumara Maize Azul flour is available. In addition to the daily staple of tortillas, maize is used in many Mexican dishes including tamales, atole, tacos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, tostadas, quesadillas & pozole.
The next time you are visiting Puerto Vallarta, I will happily take you to El Tuito. It is an adventure into rural Mexico that you will truly enjoy.
For more information about this, or any of my other entertaining and educational Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours, contact me at sandra.learn.vallarta(at)gmail.com.
Sandra Cesca has lived in Puerto Vallarta for 11 years. She is a cultural tour guide with her own small business: Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours. She is also a cultural photographer and writer whose work can be found on Your Cultural Insider and Sandra Cesca Photography. Contact her: sandra.learn.vallarta(at)gmail.com.