The Sacred Grain

maize1The culture that brought us chocolate and guacamole is also the basis of Guatemalan cuisine. Mayan foodways reign supreme in Guatemala in traditional foods such as corn, beans, and chilis, although there is also a clear European influence. Rice, for example, now a staple of Guatemalan meals, was introduced by the Spanish during their rule which began in the 1500s. Before that, maize was the main crop, and it is still seen at almost every meal in the form of the ever present corn tortilla. Mayans first cultivated corn around 2500 BC; in fact, it was corn that helped form the great civilization when the formerly nomadic people began to settle in order to tend their crops.

A fundamental of everyday eating, the tortilla can be found virtually everywhere in Guatemala. Residents of the region have been eating tortillas for at least 3500 years. The Mayan creation myth even tells of the gods making humans out of various substances until they found one that was successful – corn. In Mayan culture, a meal is not complete unless it includes some kind of corn. In fact, the words for “tortilla” and “to eat” are almost identical.

maize3Mesoamericans made tortillas from maize that had been nixtamalized, or soaked in an alkaline mixture, usually lime. Although historians do not know when or how nixtamalized maize became a dietary staple, we do know that through using this preparation of the grain, the nutritional value of the corn is released for human absorption of niacin, B vitamins, and amino acids. Without this process, it is impossible to live on corn as a main food source. People who consume a large amount of maize that has not been nixtamalized suffer from pellagra, birth defects, and even death. When Columbus brought maize back to Europe and Africa and it was consumed widely without the traditional preparation, the result was a devastating epidemic of pellagra which remained a medical mystery for centuries. Though they did not have the benefit of modern nutritional information, the Mayans and other Mesoamerican peoples developed and used this fundamental process for corn thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the New World.

Try your hand at making the thick, delicious tortillas of Guatemala. You don’t have to boil your own maize in limewater — a simple trip to a Latin grocery store will yield a bag of masa harina, or nixtamalized corn flour. The ingredients are simple – flour, water, salt, and a little love.  It may take some practice to get the technique down, but that’s half the fun!

Guatemalan Tortillasmaize5

Yield: 16 medium tortillas


2 cups masa harina

1 ¼ cups water

¼ teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, mix the flour, water, and salt until a soft ball forms. Continue kneading until the mixture has the consistency of play-dough. Cover and allow the dough to rest for ten minutes.

2. Divide the dough into sixteen pieces of equal size and roll them into small balls. Keep the dough covered with a damp towel to keep them from drying out.

3. Shape the tortillas by clapping the ball back and forth between your hands. If you’d rather, you can roll them with a rolling pin between two pieces of plastic wrap, or use a tortilla press. Just remember that to be authentic Guatemala style tortillas, they should not be too thin (at least ¼ inch thick).

4. On a preheated griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat, cook tortillas for about one minute per side. When they are ready, there will be small black spots and the tortillas should easily come off the cooking surface without sticking.

5. As you finish cooking the tortillas, remove them to a plate or basket; cover and keep warm.

Serve warm and enjoy! Try the tortillas by themselves with butter or guacamole, or as a side with black beans or stew.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Unique Batik says:

    Photo by HugoMon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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