Comida callejera is very popular in Mexico and is enjoyed by people of all social classes. This food is produced by home cooks and it is not unusual to see businessmen standing in line with the working classes and indigenous locals waiting for a dose of vitamin T. The quality of the food is measured by the length of the queue and people will travel clear across the city to visit a favourite vendor. Mexico has a highly evolved street food culture and many of the foods you will eat won’t vary much from their pre-Columbian roots. Mexico has given much more to world food culture than it has taken from it.
What Is Vitamin T?
Tacos, tortas, tamales, tlacoyos, totopos, tlayudas, tostadas etal. Commonly known as antojitos these are all corn masa based foods thoroughly entrenched in the psyche of the gourmands of comida callejera, the “street” food of the Mexicans. This food group also contains all of the tortilla wrapped goodies known as flautas, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas. The list is nearly endless. Chilaquiles, sopes, gorditas, panuchos, salbutes, garnachas, molotes, papadzules, pellizcadas, cazuelitas, empanadas.
All of these foods begin with the most basic of Mexican ingredients, masa, and its love child the tortilla.
How To Make Corn Tortillas
Makes about 20 tortillas
- 2 cups masa harina
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups hot water (hot tap water is fine)
If you cannot get fresh masa, or are unable to make it yourself, then this will be your next choice. Masa harina or masa flour is made from nixtamalised corn and will go some way to replicating the flavour and smell of Mexican food. This variety is produced in Australia.
You will also need some stuff
- Tortilla press
- 1 ziplock bag or thick plastic
- Clean kitchen towels
Prepare the tortilla press: Cut the ziplock bag open along the sides. Open the tortilla press and lay the opened bag on top. (The plastic can be reused indefinitely; just wipe it clean of any dough after each use.)
Mix the masa harina and the salt together in a mixing bowl. Pour in the water and stir to combine.
Knead the dough: Using your hands, knead the dough for a minute or two in the bowl. The dough is ready when it’s smooth, but no longer sticky, and easy forms a ball in your hand. If you press your thumb into the dough it should leave an impression without cracks around the edges of the thumbprint. If it cracks add a little more water, if too wet/sticky then add a little more flour. It’s a pretty forgiving dough
Rest the dough (optional): If you have the time, cover the bowl with a towel and rest the dough for 15 to 30 minutes. This gives the masa time to fully absorb the water and improves the taste and texture of the tortillas. You can skip the rest period if you’re in a rush.
Roll the dough into balls: Pinch off a few tablespoons of dough and roll it between your hands to form a ball roughly the size of a ping-pong ball, you can adjust the amount of dough you use to make larger or smaller tortillas.
Press the dough with the tortilla press: Place the ball of dough on the plastic-covered tortilla press in the middle of the press. Fold the other side of the plastic bag over the top of the dough. Bring the top of the press down over the dough, then press with the handle to flatten the dough to about 3mm thick. If the tortilla doesn’t look quite even after pressing or you’d like it a little thinner, rotate the tortilla in the plastic and re-press.
Peel the tortilla off the plastic: Peel away the top of the plastic, flip the tortilla over onto your palm, and peel off the back of the plastic.
Warm a large, dry (needs no oil) flat cast iron pan (or can do on bbq) over medium-high heat. When ready, a few drops of water flicked onto the surface should sizzle immediately and you should be able to hold your hand 2-3 cms above the surface for only a second or two.
Cook the tortillas for 1 to 2 minutes on each side: until the edges are starting to curl up and the bottoms look dry and pebbly. Flip and cook another 1 to 2 minutes on the other side. When done, both sides should be dry to the touch and beginning to show some brown, toasted spots.
In Mexico tortillas are typically cooked or reheated on a comal. They are simply a thin sheet of metal heated over an open flame.
Traditionally the comal was made from clay. They were cheap, disposable items.
Wrap the tortillas in a towel: As you cook them stack them up and wrap them in a clean tea towel. The tortillas will be a bit dry and brittle just off the pan but will continue to steam and soften inside the towel as you finish cooking the rest of the batch.
Serve immediately, or cool and refrigerate for up to 3 days: Fresh corn tortillas are best when they’re just off the griddle and still warm, but leftover tortillas are still good. Let any leftovers cool completely, still wrapped in the towel, then put them in an airtight container or ziplock bag and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Reheating tortillas: Dampen a kitchen towel or paper towel slightly and wrap the tortillas loosely. Microwave in 30-second bursts until the tortillas are warm and pliable. Eat immediately.
Stale tortillas can be fried in oil until crunchy to make totopos (corn chips) or tostadas (a whole fried crunchy tortilla topped with whatever you feel like) or you can just use them to make chilaquiles.
Masa and tortillas can be used to create an almost endless array of food and drinks. Let me expose you to a few.
Chilaquiles are the original nachos (saying this will probably get me into trouble)
Chilaquiles Verdes (adapted from a recipe by Fernanda Alvarez)
Yields: 4 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes / Cook Time: 45 minutes
- 2 cups vegetable oil (500ml) for frying
- 12 corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup queso fresco (substitute dry ricotta, feta or goats cheese)
- 3 Tablespoons red onion (finely sliced)
- 1 Tablespoon fresh cilantro (finely chopped)
- Crema fresca or sour cream (for garnish)
- 8 medium tomate verde (tomatillos)
- 2 jalapenos (seeded and deveined)
- 1/2 red onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water (250ml)
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
To make the Salsa Verde
Put the tomatillos, chile, onion, garlic and salt in a medium pot and add water to cover. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are soft and the tomate verde turn pale green, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
Carefully transfer the boiled vegetables a blender. Puree for a few seconds; add a little of the cooking water to form a loose paste if too dry. This should yield about 1 cup of salsa verde.
Place a wide pot or pan over medium-high heat and coat with 2 teaspoons oil for three minutes until the oil heats up. Pour in the salsa verde and reduce heat to medium-low, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, for 10 to 15 minutes. Cover and reduce the heat to the lowest setting on your stove.
To make the Chilaquiles
Pour the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and heat over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. The oil must be very hot before you fry the tortillas.
While the oil heats, stack the tortillas together and cut them into 8 wedges, like a pie. You are in essence making corn chips. If you don’t want to make the totopos (corn chips) yourself then you could use a pre-packaged variety.
Working in batches, fry the tortilla chips, turning them with a skimmer or slotted spoon so they don’t stick together. Fry until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the chips to a paper towel-lined baking pan to drain the excess oil and to allow them to cool.
Serve the fried tortillas on a plate and top with 4 teaspoons salsa verde. Sprinkle with queso fresco, sliced onions, cilantro and sour cream, and serve immediately.
Chilaquiles can be made with any kind of salsa. Try chilaquiles rojos with a red tomato based salsa, for a more substantial meal top your chilaquiles with a fried egg (or two) or by adding some shredded cooked chicken.
Tlayudas (and a close relative the tlacoyos)
Tlacoyos are a prehispanic dish that you can still find on the streets of México to this very day.
- 1 kilo of nixtamalized blue corn masa (you can use any type of masa you like)
- 1 kilo of black beans cooked with 1 teaspoon of tequesquite (1) (baking soda and table salt may be substituted but the taste cannot be replicated)
- 5 serrano chiles
- 2 tablespoons of oil
- Salt to taste
- 300 grams of grated fresh cheese
For the salad
- 3 nopales cooked and cut into strips
- ½ onion cut in julienne
- Chopped cilantro
- Red salsa
- Grind (mix) the beans with chilies and fry in hot oil. Cook them until they form a dry puree
- Make balls of the masa (a little larger than you would for a normal tortilla) and place a spoonful of the bean puree in the centre. Fold the two ends of the tortilla towards the centre surrounding the filling and giving them an oval shape.
- Cook on a comal or dry frying pan (needs no oil) until brown spots appear on masa and it becomes crunchy and dry to touch.
- Combine the nopales with onion and cilantro in a bowl.
- Garnish with nopales and salsa and crumble on some queso fresco and serve.
- Tequesquite or tequexquite (from Nahuatl tequixquitl) is a natural mineral salt containing compounds of sodium chlorate, sodium carbonate, and sodium sulphate. It is used as an ingredient in traditional Mexican dishes. Mainly used in products made from corn, such as tamales, to accentuate their flavour. It is also used for cooking nopales and other vegetables as it helps them retain their bright green colour, it can also be used to soften dried beans, and as a meat tenderizer (similar to sodium bicarbonate) It also has use as a leavening agent. To prepare, boil a solid tequesquite stone and the shells of ten tomatillos in a cup of water. Once the stone has been dissolved and the water has boiled remove from heat and let stand. When it is cold it is strained and added to the masa.
Atole is another ubiquitous Mexican street food/drink. It is a traditional hot corn masa based beverage of Mesoamerican origin and is typically accompanied with tamales. In Mexico the drink usually includes masa, water, piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar), cinnamon and vanilla. This sweet, comforting corn drink has countless variations (some recipes stir in pureed fruit or chocolate). Chocolate atole is known as champurrado.
Atole is made by toasting masa on a comal, then adding water that was boiled with cinnamon sticks. The resulting blend can vary in texture, ranging from a thick gruel to a thin liquid consistency. Atole can also be prepared with rice, flour, or oatmeal in place of masa. In northern Mexico, there is also a variation using pinole (sweetened toasted corn meal). Although atole is one of the traditional drinks of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, it is very common during breakfast and dinnertime at any time of year.
Atole is typically accompanied by tamales which can be dipped into the drink as you are strolling along. This picture shows a guajolote which is a tamale torta. This is a dense and hearty meal in itself and this combination will supply you nearly with a full days calories.
Basic Atole recipe.
- 6 cups water
- 200g Brown Sugar (Piloncillo)
- 2 (5cm) Cinnamon Sticks
- 1¼ cup masa harina (masa flour)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 6 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Add water, brown sugar and cinnamon sticks to large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Bring water to boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar.
- In a medium bowl whisk together masa harina, salt and milk until completely smooth. Pour masa mixture into pot with sugar mixture and bring to the boil, whisking occasionally; reduce heat to low. Stir in vanilla extract and continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until mixture is smooth and thick, about 10 minutes more. The atole is ready when the drink coats the back of wooden spoon. The mixture can be made as thick or thin as you require by either adding more milk or water or by using less masa.
- Remove pot from heat. Divide atole evenly among serving mugs. Serve warm.
Atole de Novia
This version is made with pinole or toasted maize. This particular variety is from Michoacán and was made by the newly wed bride for her in-laws the day after the wedding. It is said that if she failed to impress with the drink then she was returned to her home and the marriage was over. Talk about pressure.
- 1 ½ litres of water (1500ml)
- 2 pieces of piloncillo (approx. 500g – substitute 2 cups Brown sugar)
- 1 (5cm) cinnamon stick
- 100 grams of masa (preferably nixtamalized – substitute with masa harina)
- 2 chocolate tablets (I like the Abuelita brand)
- 1 cup of pinole (see below)
- 2 litres of milk
- Put 1 litre of water, piloncillo and cinnamon in a pot (preferably made of clay); Cook over high heat until the piloncillo dissolves.
- Mix half a litre (500ml) of water with 100 grams of tortilla dough (masa), whisk until the dough dissolves completely.
- Strain the mixture through a sieve over the clay pot.
- Add chocolate tablets and pinole
- Mix and cook over high heat until the chocolate has melted.
- Add milk, cook over medium heat and stir constantly until thickened.
- Serve warm
How to Make Pinole
What you will need:
- Frying Pan – cast iron is preferred but non-stick is acceptable
- Dried corn on the cob
- Molcajete (or coffee grinder, blender, mortar and pestle)
- Remove the dried out corn kernels from the cob.
- Heat frying pan over medium heat.
- Spread out all of the corn kernels on the hot frying pan in a single layer. You want all of the kernels to be touching the pan. Toast the kernels until they become swollen and are a light brown colour.
- Remove the toasted corn kernels from the frying pan and allow to cool. Grind until the corn is finer than cornmeal but not as fine as wheat flour (think masa harina)
You can also make Pinole by taking cornmeal or Masa Harina and carefully toasting it in a pan. The cornmeal may need some further grinding after toasting but the masa harina will not. Just be careful not to burn it. The mix can also be enriched by the addition of chia or hemp seeds.
See my post on amaranth for a recipe to make atole with the amaranth seed.