A tortilla lesson in La Raya

Isabel tells her English-speaking friend Jorge, who explains to us, that she will meet us in the middle of the zocalo at 11 am on Sunday. We are going to her house to make tortillas. That’s the short story.

The true story is a bit more complicated, and substantially longer.

At 10 am we left our home in the clouds above Oaxaca for the 30 minute walk to the zocalo, the central square. We dawdled at an outdoor flower market looking for a nice gift for Isabel, our landlord’s mother-in-law, who has graciously agreed to teach me about corn tortillas, Oaxaca style.

In the zocalo, as we wait, a human ribbon flows around us, caught on the Sunday breeze, floated aloft by the intoxicating smell of pork fat, corn and chilies, mesquit smoke. And we discover another bano — woohoo! 3 pesos – tucked under the central bandstand in the square. We are collecting bathroom locations like Japanese school girls collect Hello Kitty. If you walk all day around the city, miles and miles, you better know where the next bathroom is located.

Isabel arrives, and we go. Donde? No clue. We don’t know where her home is. She said “pueblo” to us when we talked about it, but now, as she is leading us away from the square I wonder, is her home somewhere nearby, just around the corner?

Suddenly, she spies what we think is a taxi. We learn later it’s a collectivo, or collective taxi, or, as many butts as can fit in a four-door sub-compact and still get the doors closed, who are headed in the same general direction. So the three of us crowd in with two other passengers and the driver. I hold the potted plant on my lap.

We leave the city, and 20 minutes later arrive at La Raya, the pueblo, one of many that radiate out from Oaxaca.

At Isabel’s house, we meet her daughter Yolanda who is a filmmaker, living at home in the quiet pueblo as she finishes editing a film. And then Isabel retrieves a bag of prepared masa – ground corn and water – from her refrigerator. Outside in the garden, she and Stu fill a bag with small tree limbs, mostly madrone, that have been gathered in a pile. We are going to her friend Francesca’s house to make tortillas, and taking wood for the fire and masa with us. With a giggle, Ysabel points to her comal, the large wide shallow clay bowl on which she once made tortillas, wedged in a bunch of bamboo near the wood pile. It hasn’t been used for a while.

At Francesca’s, a few blocks away, the outdoor kitchen and Francesca’s family, are well into comida (lunch) preparation.comal waiting There is a fire glowing red in a clay oven, which is shaped to hold the comal on top. On a nearby propane burner, Francesca’s daughter is making a brothy black bean dish, with beans, onions, garlic and water, simmered with some whole avocados leaves that she removes just before we eat. Francesca has made two salsas, a tomato with fresh red chilis that look like red serranos, and a green salsa with fresh green chilies, tomatillos, and the largest oregano leaves I have ever seen. She’s crushing the ingredients for each salsa in a large stone molcajete.

Avocado leaves, after they've been removed from the beans.
Avocado leaves, after they’ve been removed from the beans.

Neither of my cook companions speak English. I am learning with my hands and my eyes. We have no words together. At the fire, Isabel and I get busy with the masa. She dumps it onto the surface of a stone metate and begins to work the masa, pulling it forward and backward the way you might wash clothes on a washboard. When it is a bit looser, and slightly warm to the touch, we dip our hands in water, and pinch off a hunk of masa

Getting the feel for the masa
Getting the feel for the masa

about the size of a small lemon, roll it into a ball, and then flatten it into a disk. Next to us is a huge tortilla press. It’s a steel stand about waste high with a flat bottom plate about 14 inches square. The top plate is on a hinge, and has a handle. But like most things in Mexico,

Ysabel working the tortilla press
Ysabel working the tortilla press

life is impossible without plastic. So Francesca hands us sheets of plastic to press the masa between so that they won’t stick to the tortilla maker.

These are very different from the other fresh tortillas I’ve had in Northern Mexico. Corn was first cultivated in Oaxaca, and is still highly revered here. These tortillas are larger, thinner, and made of a finer-ground masa than what we are used to buying tortillas in American grocery stores (that Northern Mexico influence). The subtle, toasty popcorn flavor comes through especially when charred, and Oaxacans love their food slightly charred. We carefully lay the tortillas, 8 to ten inches across, on the surface of the hot comal. The air is thick with sweet wood smoke. When the tortillas start browning in spots, we flip them, and then flip them again, several times, until they are cooked through, but still very pliable. These large tortillas are the base for tlayuda, an essential Oaxacan dish. They are often spread with black beans like the brothy one in Francesca’s kitchen, and queso fresco, and eaten out of hand.

Francesca also shows me how to take a scoop of masa and roll it into a log shape, and smash it in the tortilla press. The shape is called a huarache, like the sandal. I never really learn how this tortilla shape might be used differently from the tlayuda.

Just when I think I’ve gotten a handle on these large, floppy tortillas, Isabel takes the same size ball of masa, and instead of pressing it into a large thin circle for tlayuda or an oval for huarache, presses it until it is only about 6 inches across, and much thicker. She leaves the tortilla on the comal just long enough to firm it up, and then pulls it off and begins pinching the edges up the way you would crimp a pie crust, making the same crimps all over the surface of the tortillas.

a basket of finished tortillas, memelites on top.
a basket of finished tortillas, memelites on top.

Francesca brings out a small plastic bag filled with brown asiento, pork lard with bits of pork. The lard is sparingly crumbled across the surface of the small crimped tortilla, and then it’s placed back on the comal to finish cooking. The lard melts and runs through the maze of crimps on the tortillas surface, adding its rich umami scent to the wood smoke and charred masa. Francesca spoons some of the brothy black bean paste on top. Now Yolanda has arrived with a bag of crumbly queso fresco, and the cheese is sprinkled across the thick, porky tortilla, which is still on the comal.

Francesca adds queso to the memelites
Francesca adds queso to the memelites

Another three or four minutes on the comal, and we collect plates of these thick tortillas, called memelitas, and sit in Francesca’s dining room with her family. We spoon the red and green chili salsas on top and drink pineapple agua fresca.

At Francesca's table
At Francesca’s table

I have made my own tortillas for years, hundreds of them. I make salsas much the way Francesca makes hers. But it is the combination … the stone, the clay, the fire, Isabel’s fine, small fingers, Francesca’s laugh, the rich pork, the fresh masa made from corn just ground the day before … it is a miraculous and rich thing, so satisfying, the rest of the day seemed to just float around me, the woodsmoke still in my hair, the masa still under my fingernails.

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