We’re doing Mexican food all wrong

Published for Calgary Co-op grocers' website and newsletter.

We’re doing Mexican food all wrong

When it comes to ‘Taco Tuesday’ in most Canadian homes, it’s not uncommon to see folks stopping in the Mexican food aisle and reaching for a pack of crunchy taco shells.

But Jose Ricardo Rodriguez wants you to know that if you’re going for the genuine Mexican experience, that’s not it.

Crunchy taco shells are a decidedly North American twist on a Mexican tradition. And it turns out we’ve been filling tacos all wrong, too.

Canada, freelance, writer, calgary, toronto, vancouver, academic, best, corporate, blogger, writing, website, story“We use beef like steak and pulled pork or pulled chicken or even pulled beef in different flavours  — we never use ground beef,” explains Rodriguez, the General Manager at Calgary-based Las Tortillas.

The company specializes in fresh, simply made corn tortillas. “It’s very simple and pure and that is the secret in our tortillas; keep it simple,” explains Rodriguez.

Making authentic corn tortillas isn’t as simple as, say, making pancakes. Just try mixing traditional cornmeal with water and flour.  You’ll end up with grits. The secret to making a proper tortilla dough is something called nixtamalization.

Nixtamalization is a lengthy and complex process where corn or maize is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution like limewater. Nixtamalized corn is then more easily ground, and takes on a slightly different, almost lightly tangy flavour.

The corn meal that Rodriguez and Las Tortillas get is already nixtamalized, since it can be a time consuming and expensive process. But otherwise, the tortillas are mixed and pressed with care in their Calgary facility.

The tortillas are used to wrap up a variety of traditional and more unique fillings. While they can be used to hug Mexican tacos, Rodriguez says it’s easy to use tortillas as you would a traditional bun; make sandwiches, toast them with eggs, even use them to sop up soups and stews.

In fact, Las Tortillas biggest customer base isn’t Mexican or Latin American immigrants — it’s Canadians.

“We started to teach Canadian customers how to eat corn tortillas and we communicated with the Celiac Community here in Calgary to offer our product because it’s gluten-free,” explains Rodriguez.

The ingredient list is indeed pretty short; water, corn, masa (or nixtamalized) flour and natural preservatives. Las Tortillas wants to keep the recipe simple so it can be locally made, and served fresh, not sit on shelves for years.

“If I deliver the same day to Co-op, then the tortillas are still warm. Then you need to wait a little bit in order to put them in the fridge. If left out of the fridge they will last maybe one or two days but if they are in the fridge they will last for like 3 weeks at least.”

After years specializing in tortillas, Rodriguez is still passionate about his product and pleased that it’s now finding its way to many more Calgary homes.

“We are very grateful to Co-op. We are very happy to have a provider like Co-op.”

Las Tortillas is a family business. The couple’s children also help out when needed, and it was for the family that Rodriguez and his wife left Mexico 15 years ago to make a new life in Calgary.

“We left Mexico,” says Rodriguez, “because there were less opportunities for kids, more violence and more drugs.”

In Calgary they found a city that matched their more conservative family values, plus endless opportunities for what was then a budding business.

“Every day, we are a little bit busier than the day before!”

Tortilla 411

How to store corn tortillas:
“In order to give long life to tortillas, it needs to be in the fridge. It’s like bread; if you leave bread out for a week it should be okay; but if you keep it in the fridge it lasts a little bit longer.”

How to warm fresh tortillas:
“For me, the best is in a frying pan at a medium temperature. Flip it a couple of times and when you see it’s soft, it is ready . You don’t need to cook it but to just warm it up. I don’t really like microwaves but people like microwave for it because it is fast I will suggest that if you are going to do it in a microwave; you should wrap it in a towel and put it inside the microwave it depends on how many tortillas you want to warm up and it depends on the power of your microwave but normally say 20 tortillas or 30 tortillas; 30 seconds to 35 seconds is okay. If you don’t wrap it in a towel; that is, you just put it in a plate, the tortillas will dry and it’s not good.”