Nicaraguans call themselves “children of the corn,” and for good reason. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, corn – more specifically “maize” – is a large source of income for many rural families and is literally in about every bite of food that Nicaraguans eat. Maize can be used in powdered drinks, main dishes, puddings, desserts, and candy. The most common (and my favorite) way of eating maize is in the traditional tortilla.
Nicaraguan Señoras wake up as early as 3:30 or 4:00 AM to start making the day’s tortillas. The more rural the family, the earlier they wake up to prepare breakfast for their husband or sons who go out to the field to work at 5:00 AM. There are certain houses in town known as the “tortilla houses” where you can buy them - my neighbor makes 200 tortillas daily! To prepare tortillas, the maize is cooked the day before, usually in gray ceniza (ash) to help strip off the outer layer. The cooked maize is then set aside to cool until the next morning. Below: cooking with ash (the color isn't too appealing, right?)
The maize is rinsed and taken early in the morning to the nearby mill. There are dozens in the town located in people’s homes or garages, and they start up at 4 AM every day. If you’re up early enough, you can see women venturing out into the morning mist with buckets of cooked maize on their heads, going to the mill which will grind the maize into a smooth pulp for .14 cents/pound. Below: maize pulp ready to make into tortilla.
After grinding the maize, the women trek back home and start up the kitchen fire. A small ball of maize is rolled and a circular sheet of plastic is used to shape the tortilla without sticking to the wooden kitchen table. Experienced tortilla makers can whip out a perfect circular and uniform-width tortilla in less than 10 seconds. People like me take a good minute or so to do the same (although I earn quite a few points for even trying. “You won’t go hungry!” the Nicaraguan women praise me for my oval, misshapen tortilla). As they are pounding out the circular shape, they use the left hand to shape the edge, while the right hand comes down in a repetitive smack, rotating the plastic sheet to continually smooth out the surface (wet your hands first to avoid sticking). If you’re out walking early in the morning, you can tell which family makes tortillas by listening for the radio music, looking for smoke coming from the kitchen, and the telltale “smack, smack, smack” of the tortilla pounding. Once the fire is hot, you can use a ceramic or metal frying pan to cook the tortilla – some have holes in the middle (for air movement maybe?). After the tortilla has been formed, it is thrown on the hot pan for a minute or so, and flipped twice. Experienced tortilla makers use their bare hands to flip it – expertly maneuvering between simultaneously pounding out tortillas and cooking them. Nothing is added to the ground maize, and no oil is used on the pan. Just plain maize + fire = hot and fresh tortilla. My favorite breakfast here (besides oatmeal, of course) is a soft, hot tortilla with boiled red beans. In my community, you can buy tortillas for anywhere from .05 cents to .09 cents/each. Later in the morning (after 6:00 AM) you can observe another exodus of women taking to the streets with cloth dishtowels, on their way to their daily tortilla provider to buy their family’s daily “bread.” My host family, which had about 10 people in it would go through about 40 tortillas in a day. They are served at every meal and accompany soup, beans, meat, cheese, or in a pinch can simply be served with a sprinkle of salt.
After repeated bacterial and parasitic infections, I’ve had to cut down on my tortilla consumption since it isn’t the cleanest food in the world (lots of contact with unwashed hands and dirty water), but they remain one of my favorite Nicaraguan foods. Lucky for me, for most Nicas they are too.