Old New World: tortillas, a love story

tortillas, folded in a clean kitchen towel to steam

I've made an awful lot of tortillas this month for Vegan MoFo, but when I was a novice tortilla maker a few years ago I had no idea what I was doing. I'd eaten my fair share, but that's a different matter.

Tortillas in the pre-contact Americas were always made of corn, so that's what I've been making as wheat did not make it's way to the New World until the early 16th century when the Spanish brought it over. The Maya sometimes added in pumpkin or squash seeds to the masa, but most common was a plain tortilla, called wah and its thicker relative, pim. Tortillas came in many forms for the Aztecs; there are passages in the Florentine Codex that refer to tortillas made of a "white flour" or "white and hot tortillas" but these were made of corn, not wheat. Finely ground corn is much paler than coarsely ground, and there were many colors of maize - including white. According to the Franciscan friar Bernardo de Sahagún: 

"The tortillas which the lords ate every day were called tononqui tlaxcali tlacuelpacholli, meaning white and hot tortillas...ueitlaxcalli, meaning large tortillas; these are very white and very thin, and wide, and very soft...other tortillas called quauhtlaqualli; they are very white, and thick, and large and rough. They also ate some buns that were not round, but long, which they called tlaxcalmimilli...Another kind of tortillas they ate were called tlacepoalli tlaxcalli, which were in layers, and they were dainty food...there were also many kinds of tortillas for the commoners."

I feel like it's a pretty huge omission to not detail the "tortillas for the commoners," but I'm glad that Sahagún was so enthusiastic and mostly encyclopedic. I haven't made most of the kinds he describes, but I get by. If you're nervous about making tortillas, there are a few things I've picked up along the way; to start, here's the basic recipe I use for reference - you've seen it a few times this month.


makes 12

  • 2 cup masa harina
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cup water plus more if necessary

Place the masa harina in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Add water and knead until the dough is firm but pliable. Form 12 balls of dough and cover them in the bowl with a damp  towel for 1 hour. 

Heat a flat pan over medium heat until drops of water dance and evaporate when flicked. Press between wax paper on a tortilla press or roll out into circles, then cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Fold stack of tortillas in a clean towel to steam for about 10 minutes.

homemade tortillas, imperfect and bumpy and tasty


If your dough is too crumbly, add water. If it's too sticky, add more masa. Do both a tablespoon at a time until you have a dough that is pliant, only slightly tacky, and does not crack. 

Make sure you form spheres, not ovals and not the somewhat "spinning top" shape used to make dumplings with thicker bellies. Your tortillas will roll out more evenly.

If your tortillas crack when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more water. Remove the cracked tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more water to the entire batch. 

If your tortillas stick and pull apart on the wax paper when they are rolled or pressed out, you need to add more masa. Remove the sticky tortilla and add it back to the rest of the masa before you add more masa to the entire batch. 

I use a well-seasoned flat cast iron pan to cook tortillas. You can use a well-seasoned larger cast iron griddle if you have one to cook more than one at a time.

Patience is important; if you flip the tortilla too soon, bits of masa will stick to the pan and will eventually burn if you don't gently scrape them up quickly. 

Try, if you can without too much calamity, to burn the heck out of at least one tortilla so you get a feel for how hot is too hot, and how long is too long. You'll also learn when to turn the heat up or down with experience - I usually turn the heat down a bit for the last few tortillas as the pan gets very hot. I habitually undercooked my tortillas so they were still raw in the center before I accidentally burned one.

Cooked tortillas aren't perfectly smooth; in fact, you can tell when the first side is done by the small bumps that form. 

You'll soon get a sense for when to flip the tortilla, by the way it smells and the way the color changes. I tend to flip it the first time when the edges just start to curl up and remove it from the heat to steam after it has puffed up a bit, slightly inflated with air.  The tortilla will deflate when it is removed from heat. If you flip the tortilla too early, it's okay to flip it back.

Make sure you leave some time before serving to steam the tortillas in a clean kitchen towel. This helps the tortillas become flexible and soft. I do at least 10 minutes. I also turn the stack upside down when I finish the last one so that the hottest tortilla is on the bottom, steaming upward.

There's really nothing like a fresh, warm, homemade tortilla - and, once you get the hang of it, you can make more than a dozen in less time than it takes to pick up takeout!

a stack of tortillas

Old New World: resource round-up

I can't believe the month's almost over. I really enjoyed the Old New World project and I loved doing VeganMoFo for the first time!  I'm already thinking about what my theme should be for next year.

Vegan MoFo 2013: Old New World

If you enjoyed reading about my exploration of pre-colonial food in the Americas and want to read more about it, I've compiled a list of the resources I used below.  I've linked to the amazon.com pages, but you can find these books at Powell's, AbeBooks or - my favorite - your local independent bookstore.

some of the books on the shelf

some of the books on the shelf


Ana M. De Benitez, Cocina Prehispanica (Adler's Foreign Books Inc, 1977)

Sophie D. Coe, America's First Cuisines (University of Texas Press, 1994)

Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking  (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 1991)

Fernando Divina and Marlene Divina,  Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditions by Smithsonian American Indian (Ten Speed Press, 2010)

Lois Ellen Frank, Native American Cooking: Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations  (Random House Value Publishing, 1995)

Fany Gerson, Paletas (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Cherry Hamman, Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico (Hippocrene Books, 1998)

Richard Hetzler, The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian  (Fulcrum Publishing, 2010)

Phyllis Hughes, Pueblo Indian Cookbook  (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1972)

Juanita Tiger Kavena,  Hopi Cookery  (University of Arizona Press, 1980)

Marcia Keegan, Southwest Indian Cookbook (Clear Light Pub, 1987)

Copeland Marks, The Exotic Kitchens of Peru: The Land of the Inca  ( M. Evans & Company, 2001)

Heidi Swanson, Super Natural Cooking: Five Delicious Ways to Incorporate Whole and Natural Foods into Your Cooking  (Ten Speed Press, 2007)

Reay Tannahill, Food in History (Broadway Books, 1995) 

Rosario Olivas Weston, La Cocina de los Incas (Universidad San Martin de Porres, 2001)


online resources

Aztec, Maya, and Inca foods and recipes: foodtimeline.org

English to Nahuatl glossary: http://www2.potsdam.edu/schwaljf/Nahuatl/eng-nah.htm 

Nahuatl Dictionary: http://whp.uoregon.edu/dictionaries/nahuatl/index.lasso 

NativeTech Indigenous Foods and Traditional Recipes: http://nativetech.org/recipes/index.php 

The Maize Tamale in Classic Maya Diet, Epigraphy and Art: http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/maya/maya-maize.pdf 

Vegan MoFo week four retrospective

How can this have been the last full week of MoFo? This week I celebrated fall with a Mayan pumpkin stew, used seitan in a Hopi stew and managed to incorporate the most vegan green of all, kale, into a pre-contact dish - but not in a stew.

outtake: juicing limes


Here, in no particular order, are five posts from other bloggers that I really enjoyed reading this week:

I am a sucker for a beet burger, and this beautifully scarlet recipe from Claryn at Hell Yeah It's Vegan! is right up my alley. 
Like chel from chelrabbit, I am a hungry bear who should probably just make her own darn fruit and nut bars already.
I love that The Good Karma Kitchen's Kyleigh was skeptical of tacos. Food detectives are my kind of detectives.
Pumpkin for everyone! Shannon's pretzels at Yup, it's vegan sound perfect for cooler weather.
Finally, I might have squealed when I saw that Hayley made Abaratian pastries at Lima Bean Lover.

Old New World: Mayan ha tsikil kab

ha tsikil kab

The literal translation of ha tsikil kab is "squash seed honey water." Ha is water and kab is honey.  Tsikil, squash seeds, were an incredibly important part of the day-to-day Maya diet -  it is thought that the oil from squash seeds was the main source of fat for the pre-contact Maya! Squash seeds were also a frequent offering to agricultural deities, as was honey. These candies, combining those two important foodstuffs, are still made today. In this adaptation I use corn syrup instead - I thought it was a fitting substitution for the honey in a sweet from a society that also valued corn highly.

pumpkin seeds about to be pan-toasted

ha tsikil kab

makes about 36 candies

  • 2 cups pumpkin or other squash seeds
  • 1 cup corn syrup

First, toast the pumpkin seeds, either in the oven for about 5 minutes at 350 or on the stovetop until most are golden.  Place the seeds in a pot and add the corn syrup. Bring to a simmer - you'll be able to hear it hiss even if you can't quite see it - and stir constantly for about 5 minutes.  Drop tablespoonfuls onto wax paper and let cool. Store in a closed container.

ha tsikil kab, cooling on wax paper


I do use corn syrup here - something I have never purchased before! I used an organic non-GMO kind, but you could also try agave nectar, which is something that was known and used at the time. The Aztecs made a similar sweet of squash seeds "stuck together with cooked syrup" that was most likely cooked down maguey syrup.

Work quickly as the corn syrup gets tacky fast and will start to leave thin threads.  Use two spoons, one to scoop and one to help release the candy from the first spoon.

However tempted you might be to lick the spoons, don't. They will be hot and sticky! 

You might recognize the sikil in tsikil from sikil pak!  I'm not sure why it's spelled differently in this sweet application.

Recipe adapted from Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico by Cherry Hamman and America's First Cuisines  by Sophie D. Coe.


ha tsikil kab

Old New World: Mayan toksel, tsah bi yax ik and wah

toksel, tsah bi yax ik and wah

This pre-contact Mayan dish of toasted lima beans and squash seeds is traditionally made using heated cooking stones in a vessel - toksel means "burned and coarsely ground."  Rather than risk the dire twin possibilities of stones either exploding or flying from my pot, I opted for a more modern adaptation, used by the cooks today who still make this "elusive" and marvellously savory recipe. Tsah bi yax ik is a spicy green chile sauce with some oil added to it: tsah refers to the enriching fat, ik is used to name sauces and yax means green here. Wah are tortillas, thinner than pim, and the average Mayan may have eaten as many as 30 in one meal!

soaked and drained Christmas limas


makes about 4 servings

  • 1 cup dried lima beans, washed and soaked overnight
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 square inch dried Kombu
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup pumpkin or squash seeds
  • 1 hot green chile
  • 3 green onions

Rinse soaked beans and add to a pot along with the water and dried Kombu. 

Simmer for 1/2 hour, then add  salt. Simmer 1/2 hour more or until beans are tender, adding water if necessary - you want to cook them down until they are mostly dry - and stirring occasionally.  Remove Kombu. 

While the beans are simmering, toast your pumpkin or squash seeds until golden brown either on the stove over medium heat (I use a small cast iron pan) or in the oven for 5 minutes at 350. Let cool, then grind them in a molcajete or a food processor, and set aside in a small bowl. Toast the hot green chile on the stovetop over medium heat as well, then destem and chop and set aside. Chop the green onions and set aside.

When the beans are done, drain if necessary and add the ground pumpkin seeds, chopped green chile and green onions. Stir very carefully so as not to crush the beans and simmer for 15 minutes on the lowest possible heat. Serve with wah and tsah bi yax ik or your favorite salsa.


chiles waiting to be toasted

tsah bi yax ik

makes about 2 cups

  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 5 fresh hot green chiles
  • 2 TBSP canola or other mild-tasting oil
  • 2 limes
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Toast your onion, garlic and chiles, either on the stovetop until the skins have some black spots or in the oven for 20 minutes at 425. Juice the limes and set aside the juice.

When you are done toasting your vegetables, peel the garlic and chop the onion, destem the chiles and chop. Grind the chiles in a molcajete or a food processor.

Sauté the onion and garlic in the oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the ground chiles and sauté for another 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and the salt.



makes 6

  • 1 cup masa harina
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup water plus more if necessary

Place the masa harina in a large bowl and stir in the salt. Add water and knead until the dough is firm but pliable. Form 6 balls of dough and cover them in the bowl with a damp  towel for 1 hour. 

Heat a flat pan over medium heat until drops of water dance and evaporate when flicked. Press between wax paper on a tortilla press or roll out into circles, then cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Fold stack of wah in a clean towel to steam for about 10 minutes.



The Mayans did not distinguish between blue and green as abstract notions, so yax also refers to blue. 

If you're making toksel and tsah bi yax ik at the same time, you can toast all the chiles at the same time on the stovetop or roast all the vegetable together in the oven.

I used Christmas limas here, but you can use any kind of lima you like. If you can't find dried lima beans, frozen would work, just adjust the initial cooking time to about 10 minutes. I imagine fresh lima beans would be really tasty as well. 

If you keep the root end of the green onions in a little water after chopping off the green part, more green will grow - and quickly, too. 

Recipes adapted from Mayan Cooking: Recipes from the Sun Kingdoms of Mexico by Cherry Hamman.

toksel, tsah bi yax ik and wah