The History of the Flour Tortilla

The History of the Flour Tortilla

The tortilla, a sort of flatbread made out of corn, is considered the staple food of Mexico, even nicknamed the "bread of Mexico." The tortilla has been in existence for thousands of years, and is today a very popular food item.


It is impossible to determine when exactly people started making tortillas. Some historians theorize that tortillas have been around since as far back as 3000 B.C. It was around that time that the people of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico hybridized wild grasses to originate what we know today as corn. It was a cereal grain that eventually gained significance in the region as a sacred plant and the main source of food in Meso-American civilizations, particularly that of the Mayans and Aztecs.

Other historians believe the tortilla might have been around for even longer (since around 10,000 B.C.), and that it was a peasant who invented it---for the purpose of feeding a starving ruler. The food was then known as "tlaxcalli" in the native Nahuatl language.

From "Tlaxcalli" to "Tortilla"

By the time Spanish conqueror and explorer Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) arrived in the region of the New World today known as Mexico in 1519, then inhabited by the Aztec people, the tlaxcalli was an established food item there. He mentioned it in 1520 in a letter to the king of Spain recounting his observations.

Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagun (c. 1499-1590) compiled a culinary description of the Aztecs in his 12-volume history series on their civilization, "Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana" ("General History of the Things in New Spain"). By then, the Spanish had given the tlaxcalli a new name: tortilla.

How Tortillas Are Made

Corn kernels, plucked from cobs, are soaked or cooked in a lime-water solution to shed the husk, then ground on a stone slab with a grinding stone to produce corn dough ("masa"). The dough is formed into little round golf-size balls, then patted down flat before transferred to a hot griddle ("comal") to be cooked on both sides. This is the traditional method of making tortillas.

Use of Technology

However, starting from the 1940s, small-scale engines and electric motors were put together to make tortillas. The machines had wet grain grinders to make the dough, and hand presses to flatten the dough pieces. By the 1960s, there were machines that could produce a hot, steaming tortilla as fast as every two seconds.

Versatility and Popularity

The tortilla can be used or eaten in a variety of ways, be it as a plate-like wrapper like a tostada or folded like a taco. The tortilla is now a mainstream type of bread, mainly due to the increase of the Mexican population in the United States.