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A tortilla (or flour tortilla to differentiate it from other uses of the word "tortilla") is a type of thin flatbread made from finely ground wheat flour. Originally derived from the corn tortilla (tortilla in Spanish means "small torta", or "small cake"), a bread of maize which predates the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, the wheat flour tortilla was an innovation after wheat was brought to the New World from Spain while this region was the colony of New Spain. It is made with an unleavened, water based dough, pressed and cooked like corn tortillas.
Flatbread tortillas have been eaten for thousands of years in north, northwest and northeast Mexico, where they are a staple, as well as many southwestern US Native American tribes. More recently, other countries have begun producing them to serve the expatriate Mexican market and the growing demand for Mexican food, particularly in North America, Europe and Eastern Asia.
Tortillas are commonly prepared with meat to make dishes such as tacos, burritos (a dish originating in northern Mexico), and enchiladas. Tortillas are also used to make baleadas, a typical dish from Honduras.
In appearance and use tortillas are rather similar to the South Asian chapati. Tortillas are also very similar to the unleavened bread popular in Arab, eastern Mediterranean and southern Asian countries, though thinner and smaller in diameter. In China, there is the laobing (烙餅), a pizza-shaped thick "pancake" that is similar to the tortilla. The Indian Roti, which is made essentially from wheat flour is another example.
The tortilla is made from specially treated (nixtamalized) maize flour, which has been a staple food of the Mexican region since pre-Columbian times; these are also now commonly made from wheat flour (tortilla de harina or tortilla de trigo). The maize and wheat Mexican tortillas have different textures: the maize (corn) version is somewhat thicker and heartier in texture, while the wheat version is less easily broken due to its high gluten content, and can be made larger in circumference and thinner without breaking too easily.
In Panama, a tortilla is a deep fried cornmeal disk, 2–3 inches in diameter. The South American tortilla of Bolivia and Chile is inspired by the Mexican food, but is a small flat cake, usually salty, made with wheat or maize flour, and cooked over embers.
Mexican maize tortillas are commonly eaten throughout the western world as tortilla chips, and are an essential ingredient in many popular Mexican dishes, such as enchiladas, tostadas, and flautas. Tacos, while usually made with maize tortillas in Mexico, are made with either maize or wheat tortillas in other places that make Mexican-style or Tex-Mex food.
The wheat flour tortilla is probably best known as the tortilla used to make burritos, a dish originating in northern Mexico. Wheat tortillas have also become a staple of the peoples of northwestern Mexican states (such as Sonora and Chihuahua) and many southwestern US Native American tribes.
Maize tortillas are known in the Basque region of Spain as talo, and were a traditional Basque farmers' staple, until wheat flour suitable for bread was brought in by rail. Maize breads are made in other regions of northern Spain, such as Asturias, and Cantabria, where they are called borona.
Tortillas vary in size from about 6 to over 30 cm (2.4 to over 12 in), depending on the region of the country and the dish for which it is intended.
In commercial production and even in some larger restaurants, automatic machines make tortillas from dough.
According to Maya legend, tortillas were invented by a peasant for his hungry king in ancient times. The first tortillas discovered, which date back to approximately 10,000 BC, were made of native maize with dried kernel. The Aztecs used a lot of maize, both eaten straight from the cob and in recipes. They ground the maize, and used the cornmeal to make a dough called masa.
On 22 April 1519, Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés, also known as Hernando Cortez, arrived in what is now Mexico. They found that the inhabitants (Aztecs and other native Mexican peoples) made flat maize bread. The native Nahuatl name for this was tlaxcalli.
In Cortés' 1520 second letter to King Charles V of Spain, he described the public markets:
"This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. . . where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food. . . maize or Indian corn, in the grain and in the form of bread, preferred in the grain for its flavor to that of the other islands and Terra-firma".
This bread made from maize was later given the name tortilla (little cake) by the Spanish. In parts of southern Spain, the origin of many of the Spaniards conquering America, a tortilla or tortillita is a crisp, thin, circular, fried cake made of chickpea meal. These tortillas, which apparently have their roots in southern Spain's Arabic heritage, look strikingly similar to the fried maize tortilla (or tostada).[original research?]
Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún described how the Aztec diet was based on maize, tortillas, tamales and a wide variety of chiles. Sahagún noted that the Aztecs not only used corn in their tortillas, but also squash and amaranth, and that some varieties used turkey eggs or honey as a flavoring.
Traditionally, maize tortillas were made from nixtamalized maize; kernels were soaked in a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide) and water to remove their skins; this also increases the bioavailability of then-unknown niacin. The grains were then ground into maize dough (masa). A golf ball-sized piece of dough was patted down by hand into a thin pancake shape, placed on a hot griddle (comal), and cooked on both sides. This tortilla-making process is still used today in southern Mexico.
To meet the needs of big cities and the modern lifestyle, the traditional process was mechanized to increase production of tortillas. In the 1940s and 1950s, one of the first widespread uses of small gas engines and electric motors was to power wet-grain grinders for making masa. A hand press or hand patting were still used to form it into tortillas, but by the 1960s, small-scale tortilla-making machines could produce cooked tortillas every two seconds.
Today, personal and industrial (Mexican-style) tortilla-making equipment has facilitated and expedited tortilla making. Manually operated wooden tortilla presses of the past led to today's industrial tortilla machinery, which can produce up to 60,000 tortillas per hour. Tortillas are now not only made from maize meal, but also from wheat flour; home-made and store-bought tortillas are made in many flavors and varieties.
Maize tortillas are naturally low in fat (approximately 2.5 grams for a typical size) and sodium, and provide calcium, potassium, fiber, iron and B vitamins.
Tortillas remain a staple food in Mexico and Central America, and have gained popularity and market share elsewhere. In the U.S., tortillas have grown from an "ethnic" to a mainstream food. They have surpassed bagels and muffins, and have now become the number two packaged bread product sold in the U.S (behind sliced bread). The Tortilla Industry Association (TIA) estimates, in the U.S. alone, the tortilla industry (tortillas and their products – tortilla chips, tostada shells and taco shells) has become a $6 billion a year industry.
The wheat flour tortilla has different origins from the traditional maize tortilla. However, the acceptance of the wheat tortilla has increased so rapidly, it now is also part of the basic diet in northern Mexico.
Wheat flour tortillas have been used on many American spaceflights since 1985 as an easy solution to the problems of handling food in microgravity and preventing bread crumbs from escaping into delicate instruments.
Maize has been the most basic necessity in the kitchen for centuries. It is the most planted crop in the Mexican region. The country grows more than 42 different types of maize. In turn, each of these types has several varieties whose number is estimated at more than 3,000 by the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT). The characteristics of each breed are varied according to soil conditions, the relative humidity of the environment, altitude, and even how it is grown. Although some of the earliest evidence of maize cultivation suggests domestication took place in several places at the same time, it is likely this process was linked to people who spoke Oto-Manguean, although it has questioned the origin of Mexican maize.
Either way, maize is the basis of most Mexican cuisine, with some exception in the culinary traditions of northern Mexico, where wheat is taking the place of maize as the cereal base. The primary way in which maize is consumed in Mexico is the tortilla, but it is also a necessary input for the preparation of almost all types of tamales, atoles and snacks. Furthermore, the maize used for tortillas can be ripe and dry, but it is also consumed fresh and mature (maize), or soft and fresh (xilote).
Tortillas are consumed daily. Because they are very popular, most tortillas are made in factories with machinery, but they can also be home-made, especially in small towns. Tortilla factories are very common and can be found in any city, village, or settlement, and there are places where there are several in a single street. Tortilla production starts from early morning because lunch is the main meal of the day for most people. In Mexico, lunch is eaten between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Some supermarkets or grocery stores also sell tortillas, and in such places they can be bought throughout the day.
Tortillas come in several different flavors and colors according to the kind of maize used. Tortillas come with all the traditional foods of Mexico, though not with all the fillings that are used these days.
In northern Mexico and much of the United States, "tortillas" mean wheat flour tortillas. They are the foundation of Mexican border cooking and a relatively recent import. Their popularity was driven by the low cost of inferior grades of wheat flour provided to border markets and by their ability to keep and ship well.
Tortillas are used to prepare many Mexican and, more generally, Latin American dishes. Traditionally, all these dishes (except burritos) are made with maize, not wheat, tortillas. The dishes include:
"Tortilla art" is the use of tortillas as a substrate for painting. Tortillas are baked and then covered in acrylic before they are painted. The culture of Latino artists is represented by tortilla art, so this is an important part of tortilla history. This kind of art, though, is not quite famous throughout all of Mexico.
Tortillas in Central America sometimes differ somewhat from their Mexican counterparts, although are made similarly. In El Salvador, the tortillas are about 5 millimeters thick and about 10 centimeters in diameter. Like the Mexican tortillas, the maize is soaked in a mixture of water and lime (or lye), then rinsed and ground. In El Salvador, they sometimes use sorghum (called maicillo there) to make tortillas when there is not enough maize. Also in El Salvador, there is a particularly large and thick tortilla called a "chenga" on top of which food is placed (like a disposable plate, but is edible) to serve food to the labourers in coffee plantations and farms.
Stuffed tortillas known as pupusas are also a famous dish of traditional Salvadoran cuisine.
Honduras is well known for using wheat flour tortillas to make baleadas, which consists of a wheat flour tortilla, folded in half, with various items (beans, cream, scrambled eggs) put inside.
Maize and wheat tortillas can often be found in the supermarkets in El Salvador and Costa Rica.
In the United States, the tortilla is no longer seen as just ethnic bread. Many Americans use wheat flour tortillas in various dishes. They are commonly used in burritos, which originated in northern Mexico many years ago. As a testament to their popularity, the Tortilla Industry Association (TIA) estimated Americans consumed approximately 85 billion tortillas in 2000 (not including tortilla chips).
Tortilla chips — made from maize tortillas cut into wedges, then fried — first gained popularity in the 1940s in Los Angeles, California. These chips were mass-produced there, but are still known as Mexican food. The ingredients in maize tortillas are maize, lime, and water. Fried chips add salt and vegetable oil.
Some alternative ways tortillas can be eaten in the United States include combinations such as beans and meat, apple cinnamon and sugar, or peanut butter and jelly. Flour tortillas are also used to make sandwiches, casseroles and stews, and hot dogs, and there are numerous other uses. It is not as common to have home-made tortillas in American homes as in Mexico.
Many people from northern Mexico and the native Mexicans in the southwestern United States eat tortillas as a staple food. Many restaurants use wheat flour tortillas in a variety of non-Mexican and Mexican recipes. Many grocery stores sell ready-made tortillas.
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