Sunday, January 19, 2014
Q-and-A: Urban Taco’s tortilla maker calls tortillas the fork of Mexico
Plus, Markus Pinyeros tells the secret to Urban Tacos tortillas.
DALLAS There isn’t a standard tortilla. There’s no singular recipe that stands out as the ultimate and traditional tortilla. They can be made of flour and still be traditional. They can be crispy and still be traditional. Tortillas can even come puffed up. To say that one tortilla is perfectly representative of the cuisine from which it hearkens would be to neglect dozens – or even hundreds – of styles in which it can be made. After all, the tortilla has been around in some shape or form for millenia.
So when we asked Markus Pinyero to talk with us about tortillas, we wanted a bit of perspective on what they mean to him, and what role they play in his native country’s cuisine (he is from Mexico City) and how he makes them at his restaurant Urban Taco.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Markus. We’re talking about a component that seems pretty prevalent, but exactly how important is the tortilla to Mexican cuisine?
Markus Pinyero: I would say its more important than a fork (laughs)! It is part of our history, and a major aspect of our cuisine. Ever since Mesoamerica, its been part of the way that people eat in Mexico. Now there’s a whole story of how it started and how it was adopted by the working class in Mexico, but it’s also a staple in Mexican cuisine at the highest ranks. And there’s even street food – which is when you have a tortilla at it’s best. I’m serious when I say that it’s more important than forks; we don’t use forks, we use a tortilla. That’s basically what it was for – it's a way to transport food from a plate or a surface to your mouth. When you eat tacos you don’t need silverware, you just need a tortilla. Really, I would say without the tortilla, there’s not really Mexican food as we recognize it today. From enchiladas to tortilla chips to everything. For Mexican food in general, the tortilla is almost the center of it all. It really is.
So what kind of tortillas would you say you serve here?
We have a little bit of a different take on it. I would say ours are like Puebla, East Mexico City because of the dough we use. We use nixtamal, which is really the technique that the Mesoamericans originated as a form of cooking the corn. It’s kind of the south, mid-east region of Mexico.
What is nixtamalization?
It’s soaking the dry corn in an alkaline liquid, and when you soak it and you heat it, it releases different enzymes process that makes the corn doughy and creates the masa. But the most important part of it is that as it releases certain enzymes it creates nutritional value in the corn that makes the nutrients absorb-able by the body. One thing that I heard a long time ago that has stuck in my head is that the reason Mexican people live so long, especially the working class, is because their diet revolves around tortillas, black beans, queso and salt. All of those things together, believe it or not, have good nutritional value. So nixtamalization does all that, but it also creates a texture that makes it better to bond and create the dough, the masa.
What we do is get our nixtamalized corn from the local tortilla company – so they do the process. We get it once a day every morning and it still comes hot from the process of it. They deliver it to us, and we go through the process of making the tortilla. You season it – we put a little oil in it since we don’t use lard here – then you’ve got to work the dough for extended periods of time, like 15 to 20 minutes of just working a big pile of masa, until it really blends in and you break it down. Then it just comes together.
So we’d imagine you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the perfect tortilla would be – could you describe it?
Right off the grill, I mean that’s the most important part and to me it has to have a certain bite to it – but very mild – and thats where the whole alkaline process comes in. On a technical scale I can give you a breakdown, but if I were just talking to a customer, I would say just off the grill, fluffy, and light with a little bit of salt. Just roll it up and eat it!
What about flour tortillas? Are those authentic to Mexico in any respect?
Yeah. The flour tortillas are mostly used in Northern Mexico and that’s where the bridge between Mexican and Tex-Mex is. You know, being up in Northern Mexico, it was more visible to people in the U.S., so that's what the first thing the they took from the Mexican cuisine: flour tortillas and fajitas. The flour tortilla really is commonly used, but it’s not very common for the taco. It’s mostly used for quesadillas and snacks and just to have around, you know? You can get a gringa taco with a flour tortilla in Mexico but that’s why its called a gringa – because it’s the American way.
Is it common to see arguments about superior tortillas and who has the best, like you might see with barbecue in Texas?
You know, tortillas are a very craft product – there are so many that there is no real right or wrong. Obviously, there’s the ‘My mom’s tortilla versus your mom’s tortilla,' you can battle them off and obviously mine are going to be better (laughs). But there's also the local tortilla store down the street or the taquería making their own tortilla, so there's so many different recipes and methods and traditions and things that – there’s really no right or wrong.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Markus. I suppose it’s time to continue our research by eating tortillas in taco form?
(Laughs) Yeah. That’s always a good idea!
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