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A London taqueria making tortillas from scratch

by Viridiana Marin Marin

When I moved to London in 2021 one of the things I was missing the most were ‘tortillas de maiz‘; now imagine walking into a lab in Bermonsey and finding a tortilleria owned by Tacos El Pastor that makes its own tortillas from scratch using sustainably sourced heritage Mexican corn.

For those who are not familiar with tortillas or how they are made, let me tell you that ‘nixtamalizaztion’ is the authentic start of the traditional process, where dried kernels are cooked and steeped in an alkaline solution (calcium hydroxide): this process removes the seed husk of the kernel, which is inedible, and changes the corn’s consistency in a way to make tortillas possible. Unfortunately, this process has been pushed aside in Mexico, especially in big cities, where it has been replaced by processed dough and packaged tortillas full of additives.

From this lab, every day taqueria El Pastor makes the tortillas that they serve at their restaurants with 100% Mexican corn. Crispin Somerville, Hart Group Director of El Pastor, who lived 10 years in Mexico, explained us how they manage to make tortillas in London using the nixtamal process.

“In Mexico, everything starts with corn, Mexican society and culture: corn is at the center of socio economic existence. I spent these extraordinary 10 years learning about it, and if we were going to do it properly, the first step was the key to us” he said.

To make tortillas with Mexican corn outside of Mexico is a huge challenge becasue the agriculture monopolies in the United States and Mexican nationals have changed the structure of maize growth to their own benefit, principally around GMOs crops, which is increasingly threatening indigenous people. It is much easier and profitable to grow and produce GMOs crops because you get higher yelds, but Crispin and his partners didn’t want to follow this pattern, —“GMOs crops come with a number of negatives, both environmentally and societally; when we started El Pastor, we determined that we wanted to get landrace corn that we could trace from the fields to our restaurants”.

When Crispin was in Mexico he met Francisco Musi: he is a member of the family that owns El Farolito in Mexico, a taqueria with more than fifty years of tradition, and also is the founder of Tamoa, a company that promotes creole maize inside and outside of Mexico. Tamoa works directly with farmers in Mexico to pay fair prices and help preserve and protect ‘landrace’ grains, and the communities who grow them like the one in the small town of San Diego Huehuecalco, located in the State of Mexico. In order to bring Mexican corn to London, Crispin partnered with him and El Pastor became their first client.

Nixtamalization, the science behind tacos

The process of nixtamalization is an ancient method practiced by the Aztecs. It is, in a certain way, the connection between modern-day Mexicans and their ancestors. The difference between a tortilla made with the “nixtamalization process” and one made with ‘masa harina‘ (an industrialized and prepackaged flour) is huge: the most important is that the tortilla nixtamalizada contains more nutrients because this process increases the nutritional quality of the grain by concentrating the amount of protein and calcium, making the nixtamalization process one of Mesoamerica’s most important culinary contributions to the world.

The steps of nixtamalization sounds easy: measure the corn, calcium hydroxe and water, boil them, let them sit, then drain and rinse the corn. Now this corn called ‘nixtamal’ could be ground into a ‘masa’ and, voilá, you can make tortillas. Nevertheless, ‘nixtamalizar’ far from the source is no an easy task, as is an age-old process that has been passed down from generation to generation, and for Crispin and his team at El Pastor it has been a challenge to perfect it. All this work has led them to refine their nixtamalization technique making possible for taqueria El Pastor to serve tacos with authentic tortillas made with 100% Mexican corn.

The consumption of handmade tortillas made from landrace corn, in addition to being beneficial to our health, also promotes the conservation of this genetic Mexican diversity, as well as supporting the economic development of rural communities that produce this crop through traditional agro-ecological practices.

Tortillas are the most relevant food in Mexico and the popularity of Mexican food around the world is creating a big demand for high quality tortillas also abroad.

Did you know this about Mexican tortillas?

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