The handiwork of Maria from La Rinconada, a village in the north of the department of León

The handiwork of Maria from La Rinconada, a village in the north of the department of León

In the villages the tortilla is one of the main staples in the Nicaraguan diet.  It is also one of the main jobs for women.  In the two villages where I visited this past weekend, one woman in every house spent hours a day preparing corn and making tortillas.

The corn for tortillas is prepared the day before.  The white kernels of dried corn are boiled in water and ashes, which, as you can imagine, results in a large unappetizing gray lumpy mess.  This age old process is called nixtamalization. The alkaline ashes free an amino acid called tryptophan which makes the corn digestable and more nutritious.  The process also causes the outer husk of the kernals to split and peel off.

Mixing in the corn and ash at Melaña's house, also in La Rinconada.

Mixing in the corn and ash at Melaña's house, also in La Rinconada.

The following morning the corn is washed (the waste water with the kernal peels fed to pigs or dogs) and hand ground.  Tina, in Lagartillo, always uses a metate (a kind of stone morter and pestle) to further grind the masa, but some people skip this extra step, or send the masa through the grinder a second time.  Each tortilla is hand formed, first into a thick pancake and then patted out slowly into a thin smooth disk.  Every tortilla has a face – the side

Many Nicaraguans, even in the city, cook over open fire.  This is a more effecient and healthy wood stove, as it burns less wood and has a chimney to carry the smoke outside.  The fire is underneath, and the two griddles are resting on open holes.  Pots are also put right on the open fire, or ontop of a griddle to simmer.

Many Nicaraguans, even in the city, cook over open fire. This is a more effecient and healthy wood stove, as it burns less wood and has a chimney to carry the smoke outside. The fire is underneath, and the two griddles are resting on open holes. Pots are also put right on the open fire, or ontop of a griddle to simmer.

you pat on.  When you put the tortilla onto the comal (a ceramic griddle used exclusively for tortillas) the face has to go down.  When there is steam escaping from the center of the tortilla, it’s time to flip it.  Tina has a special method of flipping, where she puts the back of the tips of her fingers on the edge of the tortilla.  They stick slightly, just enough for her to life her hand and slip her thumb underneath, grab the edge, and flip.  I’ve managed to do this once or twice, but not without getting a nice blister on the back side of my middle finger.  After another minute the tortilla is flipped one final time.  This is the test flip – if the masa separates and the tortilla puffs up like a balloon, you’ve made an excellent tortilla!

Making tortillas with Maria.  I'm grinding.  Maria grinds eight mill-fulls of corn a day for her large family.

Making tortillas with Maria. I'm grinding. Maria grinds eight mill-fulls of corn a day for her large family.

There are endless varieties of tortillas.  Every household seems to have it’s signature.  Tina’s are medium sized, very finely textured, and have a wonderful flavor from the corn her family grows.  In another village called La Rinconada, Maria’s tortillas are nearly twice the size.  Her hard working sons and husband eat two in each meal, six a day, and that makes for an enormous amount of tortilla making.  She speeds up the process by skipping the ‘fine grind’, which changes the texture but they are just as flavorful.  In the city many people use Maseca, a pre-processed fine corn flour for tortillas.  I’ve used this in the states because it’s available almost everywhere, but after eating the real thing I definitely notice the difference.  A flat, sourish taste and smell.  Fresh ingredients and the extra work of starting from scratch definitely make a difference.

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