Medicinal Ash.

The tortilla is without a doubt a wonder food. It is produced from that quintessential of all Mexican grains maize (1). Maize is a highly nutritious plant (2)

  1. or corn as it is commonly known (please tell me you already knew this)
  2. thanks to the process of nixtamalisation. This is the preparation of maize kernels with calcium hydroxide (or just simply “cal”) which liberates particular B vitamins and gives the masa dough a certain plasticity without which the tortilla could not be made. See POSTS Nixtamal; Masa, Tortillas and Vitamin T; Proteger la tortilla (Protect the Tortilla) and Nejayote for more information on the processes of nixtamalization.

The figures below show the nutritional profile of nixtamalized corn tortillas (and some of their offspring such as totopos/corn chips) in comparison with that of white bread. The plain corn tortilla is nutritionally superior to white bread in every way. The only discrepancy is with the corn chips as these are likely to have been fried during production so their caloric and fat values are much higher than either tortillas or bread. You also need to take into account that we are using nixtamalized corn. Nixtamalization changes the nutritional profile of the corn and adds to the grains nutrient profile whereas during the processing of wheat (to make white flour to make white bread) nothing is added. There is only nutrient loss and bread often has calcium, iodine, iron, thiamine (Vitamin B1), niacin (Vitamin B3) and/or folic acid (B9) added back into the flour before it is baked. In Australia the fortification of bread is mandatory (1). Corn does not have the same issues with nutrient loss during production. HOWEVER. If you just grind dried corn and cook/eat it (as in say for instance polenta)(2) then you run the very real risk of a suffering from a disease of nutritional deficiency called pellagra. This illness is caused by a severe deficiency of niacin (Vitamin B3) and tryptophan. Although not as severe as scurvy (3) if un-nixtamalized corn is your only option, pellagra can be fatal (4).

Polenta. Known as “grits” in the U.S. of A
(although polenta is made with yellow corn whilst grits are often white corn)
  1. as per Section 2.1.1 of the Mandatory fortification standards of the Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand – Cereals and Cereal Products – requires the addition of thiamin (sic) and folic acid to wheat flour for making bread (Australia only) and the replacement of salt with iodised salt in bread. Australian millers are required to add folic acid (a form of the B vitamin folate) to wheat flour for bread-making purposes. Folate, which occurs naturally in foods like green leafy vegetables, is necessary for healthy growth and development. Folic acid is particularly important to the healthy development of babies in early pregnancy. Mandatory iodine fortification was implemented in Australia in 2009 which required the replacement of non-iodised salt with iodised salt for making all breads except organic bread and bread mixes for making bread at home. Mandatory iodine fortification of bread was intended to address the re-emergence of iodine-deficiency in some areas of Australia and New Zealand.
  2. polenta is made from (un-nixtamalized) ground cornmeal that is cooked into a type of porridge/gruel/mush. It is quite delicious but nutritionally deficient and not suitable for long term use. If you are eating other grains/pulses/fresh herbs and vegetables then this not a problem. It becomes a problem, particularly amongst the very poor, whose main source of carbohydrate intake is only ground cornmeal. As late as the 1940’s this illness was still causing fatalities amongst the very poor living in the Southern States of the USA. (Rajakumar 2000)
  3. scurvy is an illness caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C and can kill within a few months
  4. see Post : Nixtamal for a little more on this (and the process of nixtamalization itself of course)
Iodine fortified table salt.
Nutritional profile of nixtamalised maize products compared to wheat flour tortillas and white bread.
US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 2002. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 15. Nutrient Data Laboratory Webpage,

The tortilla can be used at all stages of its lifecycle. From raw masa (1) to fresh tortillas and through to old stale tortillas used for chilaquiles or migas (2). Tortillas can also be used after they have been burned black and crumbled into ash. This can either be in a culinary form (3) or as a medicine.

  1. which I guess isn’t technically a tortilla yet – and can be made from either freshly nixtamalized corn or from masa harina (purists will disagree with me here). Raw masa can be used to make a prodigious number of dishes from atole to a whole family of foods known colloquially as Vitamina T. See Post : Masa, Tortillas and Vitamin T
  2. see recipes at bottom of Post
  3. such as in a mole negro

I have waxed lyrical on the tortilla a little too long I think. The point I am trying to get at lies with the ashes used both in the production of the tortilla (1) and the use of the tortilla ash itself. At the start of this Post I briefly mentioned the process of nixtamalization. Nixtamalization is the processing of the raw (dried) corn kernels into a state in which they can then be ground into a malleable and useful dough. The corn is cooked in an alkaline solution which these days is achieved with the use of calcium hydroxide (2) but was likely initially done using wood ash as the alkalising agent.

  1. via Ash nixtamalisation. See Posts Nixtamal or Nejayote for more detailed explanations on the use of ash instead of calcium hydroxide to nixtamalize corn.
  2. Calcium hydroxide is an inorganic compound with the chemical formula Ca(OH)₂. It is a colourless crystal or white powder and is produced when quicklime is mixed or slaked with water. It has many names including hydrated lime, caustic lime, builders’ lime, slaked lime, cal, and pickling lime. See Post Nejayote for more information.

It is unknown when the process of nixtamalization began. It certainly began in Mesoamerica (due to its intimate relationship with maiz) but it it not known exactly when it began. One would think certainly after the advent of corn but I would assume that if corn was developed from teosinte then it stands to reason that teosinte may have been treated via the same process to make its hard seeds edible. A study by Staller and Carrsaco (2009) notes that evidence of nixtamalization dating from 1200-1500BC has been found on the southern coast of Guatemala.

Teosinte plant compared to the maiz plant.

Etymologically speaking the word nixtamal is from the Nahuatl nixtamalli or nextamalli which is from the root word nextli (ashes). One way to make an alkaline liquid is to use hardwood ash. More commonly these days it is done with calcium hydroxide or “cal” as it is known. The Aztecs knew this. Cal or “slaked lime” is made by processing limestone or seashells in a particular way (usually by burning them). An alternate root for the word nixtamal is “tenextli” which means lime in Nahuatl. Tenextli is a compound of te- (from tetl – stone) and nextli (ashes), which fairly clearly points to burned stone, in this case limestone, called cal in Spanish. There is evidence that “lime-cooking” was already in use by 100BC in Teotihuacan (Rooney etal 2016). It is noted in Medocino Codex that villages in nearby Puebla supplied (amongst other items) 4,000 loads of limestone as tribute. He also noted that Mayans, after eating fresh water mussels, burned the shells into ashes which were then used as an alkalising agent.

The process may have evolved from the cooking of various grains/seeds in the hot ashes of the cooking fire. Zizumbo (etal 2016) notes that (popping) corn and teosinte seeds were (and still are) cooked in this manner but exactly HOW nixtamalization first began is also a bit of a mystery. A couple of theories have been put forward. One involves the dish caldo de piedra or “stone soup”. This is a dish cooked by placing red hot stones in it. It has been posited that if these were limestone based rocks then they would have possibly alkalinised the water whilst cooking the ingredients and changed the corn kernels in the dish, loosening their husk and making them soft and chewy. My argument against this is that limestone based rock breaks down when heated (this is how you make lime) and that it requires more limestone to alkalinise water than might be found in a couple of rocks used to heat/cook a pot of soup.

If it is cooked like this the situation’s a little different though. There is more than enough rock here (although it does not appear limestone based). The cooking time required to nixtamalize is still much longer than it would take to cook a soup (in this case more of a fish stew).
Image via

According to a statement from the Oaxacan Congress, Caldo de Piedra has its origin in the community of San Felipe Usila, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca and for the people who live in this Chinantec region, it represents their ethnic identity.

Diana Kennedy (2010) notes that traditional of cooks in the Valley of Oaxaca will prepare cuanesle, a type of masa, to thicken moles or for some types of tamales. The preparation of the corn differs from that of masa for tortillas in that the corn is cooked with wood ash instead of lime.

To make (about 850g – about 2 pounds) masa
·         500g  (about 1¼ pounds) white corn
·         750ml (3 cups) wood ash
·         750ml (3 cups) water

The above image brings us to another theory being that the process may have occurred when someone “accidentally” spilled some ash into a cooking pot of corn which was then nixtamalized as a result. Have you seen the pot above??? If I “accidentally” spilled that much ash into the dinner pot then I’m fairly certain my mother would have murdered me. This was either some form of practical joke my mongrel sibling pulled (and then blamed on me) or it was done deliberately for another reason.

Variations on the process mentioned by Kennedy occur in other States. In Puebla tamales de ceniza are flat, unfilled, rectangular tamales made with masa mixed with ashes from the wood-fire stove which are then steamed after being wrapped in banana leaves. Black flecks of ash perfuse the tamales giving them a dark colour and smoky flavour. These tamales are unfilled and they have a denser, heavier texture than regular tamales.

In Michoacan they make a similar food called a corunda. It is a type of ash tamal. They are different to the normal tamal in that they are “triangular” in shape and they are wrapped with the leaves of the stem of the corn plant rather than the totomoxtle or the leaves of the corn cob.

Note the leaves used to wrap the tamal.

In the State of Guerrero these tamales are known as tamales nejos. María del Carmen Ramírez de González of Carmelitas restaurant in Zihuatanejo says that “In the old days, women searched in the fields for a special type of wood that would give the flavour they wanted. The tamale-makers boil dried corn with an equal quantity of ashes, then let the cooked corn stand with the ashes to absorb the flavour. To rinse out the ashes after cooking, they put the corn in a basket and swirled it in a river. Then they grind it into masa.” Tamales nejos are traditionally eaten with mole verde.

This process is elaborated on somewhat in the Sate of Sinaloa. Here they make the nixcoco tamal (also called tamales colorados). This dish is traditionally enjoyed in the south of Sinaloa in areas such as Tacuichamona, Mazatlán and Escuinapa. The maiz is similarly nixtamalized with ash but when they are steamed pieces of wood from the trunk of the Brazilwood tree (Palo de Brasil – Paubrasilia echinata) are added to the steaming water which dyes the tamales red (hence colorados) and is said to impart upon the tamal the medicinal qualities of the wood; more specifically its digestive and diuretic actions.

These tamales tend to be made for Ash Wednesday (1) or for Dia de Muertos.

  1. Ash Wednesday, in the Christian church, the first day of Lent, occurring six and a half weeks before Easter (between February 4 and March 11, depending on the date of Easter). Ash Wednesday is a solemn reminder of human mortality and the need for reconciliation with God and marks the beginning of the penitential Lenten season. It is commonly observed with ashes and fasting. Ash Wednesday derives its name from this practice, which is accompanied by the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or the dictum “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are prepared by burning palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations.

The nixcoco tamal brings to the fore the reason for this Post. The medicinal properties of the wood.

The use of ashes in Mexican cuisine is nothing new but I could not find a lot of information (in Mexican texts) regarding the ash used to do this. For the original nixtamalization process ocote (1) ash was used. There is a little more information to be found amongst the peoples to the north of current day Mexico. The Iroquois of the Northeast Woodlands and the Navajo of the Southwest also have the tradition of ash nixtamalization and they use the ash for both nutritional and medicinal reasons. Research into these peoples traditional eating habits has proved that the ash from juniper branches, which is used to season food, is a potent source of calcium and other micronutrients (see Nutritional Table in images below)(Christensen etal 1998)(Wolfe etal 1985).

  1. Pinus montezumae, known as the Montezuma pine, is a species of conifer in the family Pinaceae. It is native to Mexico and Central America, where it is known as ocote.

Wolfe (etal 1998) mentions 3 main types of culinary ash used and how they are processed.

  • Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus monosperma) – green branches set alight on grill or screen– ashes collected in a pan below and are sifted – these are the most frequently used ashes
  • Tumbleweed (Salsola sp) – dry plants – set alight on grill – ashes collected and sifted
  • Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) – dry woody branches – set alight on grill – ashes collected and sifted. An infusion of the burnt plant has been used in the treatment of diarrhoea and bleeding from the rectum.


The creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is also called greasewood but this is a different plant. L.tridentata is called creosote bush and greasewood as a plant, chaparral as a medicinal herb, and gobernadora (Spanish for “governess”) in Mexico, due to its ability to secure more water by inhibiting the growth of nearby plants, the bushes can dominate an area by creating an adverse environment for the growth of other plants, resulting in a monoculture in some areas (Schultz and Floyd, 1999). In Sonora, it is more commonly called hediondilla (Spanish hediondo = “smelly”). The United States Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about the health hazards of ingesting chaparral or using it as an internal medicine, and discourages its use (Tilford 1997) Warnings have been made about the use of this plant and its potential to cause liver damage. In 2022 the Therapeutic Goods Administration of Australia (the Aussie version of the USA FDA – but with more teeth) altered the warning regarding this herb. It can still be used and prescribed but it must come with the warning “’WARNING: Larrea tridentata may harm the liver in some people. If you experience yellowing of the skin/eyes, dark urine, nausea, vomiting, unusual tiredness, weakness, abdominal pain, and/or loss of appetite, stop using this product and see your doctor.”

Different types of trees give you different levels of alkalinity; The Iroquois Museum’s website recommends using Poplar ashes (when nixtamalizing). Generally speaking, hard wood ash is recommended.


Do not cook in aluminium pots or use aluminium spoons when working with wood ash.  The lye in the wood ash reacts strongly with aluminium to produce hydrogen gas, which is both flammable and explosive. The ashes can ruin your aluminium pots and spoons (and the food cooked in it) due to the high alkalinity. Stainless steel and ceramic pots (and spoons of course), and wooden spoons are a better choice.

One wood based medicine is that of activated charcoal. Although technically not an ash it is produced from burnt wood.

The use of charcoal medicinally goes back to at least 1500BC when the Egyptians first recorded its medicinal use. By this time the Egyptians were using the material to absorb unpleasant odours (from infected wounds), cure intestinal ailments and even preserve the dead. By 400 B.C., the Ancient Hindus and Phoenicians had started using charcoal to purify water because of its antiseptic properties. The Phoenicians were noted for charring barrels to hold water on long sea voyages (1). By 50 A.D, Hippocrates, one of the most historic figures in the history of medicine started using charcoal for a number of medical purposes, including treating epilepsy, chlorosis and vertigo. By 2 A.D., another important figure in medical history, Claudius Galen produced almost 500 treatises on the medicinal use of charcoal.

  1. People have long used activated charcoal as a natural water filter. Just as it does in the intestines and stomach, activated charcoal can interact with and absorb a range of toxins, drugs, viruses, bacteria, fungus, and chemicals found in water.

Activated charcoal is a powder comprised of wood, bamboo, coal or coconut shells that have been burned at a very high temperature. In contrast, regular charcoal combines coal, peat, wood pulp, petroleum and coconut shells. As the name tells us, activated charcoal is charcoal that is activated by exposure to high heat.

Charcoal is “activated” by heating to extreme temperatures, creating an extensive network of pores that provides a very large adsorptive surface area that many (but not all) toxins will bind to, preventing their absorption from the GI tract into the bloodstream.

Activated charcoal adsorbs (1) many noxious substances—medical drugs, phytotoxins and poisonous chemicals—onto its surface, preventing their absorption from the gastrointestinal tract. Activated charcoal is neither absorbed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract nor metabolized and is excreted in the faeces. (Derlet & Albertson 1986)

  1. the process of atoms or molecules from a gaseous, liquid or dissolved solid substance attaching themselves to a surface and creating a film on the substance

Due to its adsorbing effects (attracts substances to the surface of the material), activated charcoal may help treat liver and kidney disorders. Taking activated charcoal by mouth may lower cholesterol levels and reduce high levels of bile acids. Activated charcoal has also been studied for many stomach disorders, including diarrhea, gas, and indigestion. In these cases its effects are likely due to charcoals ability to adsorb pathogenic bacteria (which are then excreted in the faeces along with the charcoal) (Naka etal 2001). Activated charcoal is a potentially useful method of GI decontamination (of both drugs and pathogenic bacteria).

The administration of activated charcoal is indicated to treat moderately severe to life-threatening intoxication. It should be carried out as soon as possible, within the first hour of the ingestion; timed-release preparations can be given up to 6 hours after the ingestion. (Neuvonen etal 1988)

Activated charcoal should be given only after ingestion of poisons that bind adequately to carbon

Activated charcoal can be administered with antiemetic drugs or given through a nasogastric tube, when necessary. The oral dose is approximately 1 g/kg body weight, with a maximum single dose of 100 g. (Zeller etal 2019)

The proper dosage consists of an amount that is 10 to 40 times as much as that of the intoxicating substance, or else 0.5–1 g/kg body weight in children or 50 g in adults.

Repeated application is indicated for intoxications with agents that persist for a longer time in the stomach and for intoxications with timed-release drugs or drugs with a marked enterohepatic or entero-enteric circulation. (Cooper etal 2005)

The routine combination of activated charcoal with a laxative is not recommended. Activated charcoal has been traditionally given with laxatives to encourage removal of toxic contents and improve tolerance to charcoal. However, in 2004 and 1997, the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology and the European Association of Poisons Centres and Clinical Toxicologists stated that they do not endorse the combination of activated charcoal with a laxative (cathartics such as sorbitol or magnesium citrate). This combination may cause serious side effects such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and low blood pressure.

In general, activated charcoal can reduce the absorption of and therapeutic response to other orally administered drugs; therefore medications other than those used for GI decontamination or antidotes for ingested toxins should not be taken orally within at least 2 h of administration of activated charcoal.


Contraindications to activated charcoal administration

  • Activated charcoal is ineffective or inadequately effective in cases of poisoning with acids or bases, alcohols, organic solvents, inorganic salts, or metals.
  • Patient not fully conscious, with no swallowing reflex and no safeguarding of airways. An important contraindication is impaired consciousness with the danger of aspiration in a patient whose airway has not yet been secured.
  • Gastrointestinal corrosion or bleeding, impaired gastrointestinal passage or suspected perforation
  • Do not use if there is a gastrointestinal obstruction
  • Ingestion of gasoline/oil or non-adsorbable substances
  • Recurring vomiting

Drug Interactions.

Activated charcoal may reduce or prevent the absorption of certain drugs. This may include drugs such as:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Digoxin
  • Theophylline
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

Side effects associated with the use of activated charcoal includes the following:

  • black stool (this is normal – charcoal is quite black – sometimes black stools indicates bleeding in the stomach (the stomach acid denatures the blood – if the blood in the faeces is red then the bleeding is occurring in the bowel somewhere – if the bleeding only presents a spotting on your toilet paper when you wipe then it is likely haemorrhoids)
  • constipation (always up your water intake when using charcoal as you want it to adsorb what it can and then get out). DO NOT use charcoal if you are already constipated.

Rare side effects of activated charcoal include:

  • slowing of the intestinal tract
  • blockages in the intestinal tract
  • regurgitation into the lungs
  • dehydration

Activated charcoal poultice

A poultice of activated charcoal is likely how the Egyptians used charcoal to draw foul odours from wounds (which were likely caused by bacterial driven putrefaction). A charcoal poultice may also help with the inflammation caused by a bug bite or sting, or other minor skin irritation. They have also been used to….

  • Draw out infections
  • Treat boils and abscesses
  • Reduce inflammation caused by infection
  • Draw out heavy metals
  • Treat inflammatory eye conditions and infections

To make your poultice:

  1. Combine a teaspoon of activated charcoal powder with just enough water to wet the powder to create a paste.
  2. Spread the paste on the affected area.
  3. Leave on for 10 minutes.
  4. Carefully wash off with a damp cloth.
  5. Repeat twice a day until healed.

For further information on poultices See Posts : The Pore Leaf in Brazil and The Pore Leaf in Peru

In lower than medicinal doses charcoal has become somewhat of a hippie/hipster food fad. It is used to colour everything from ice-cream to bread (and yes, the tortilla has received the charcoal treatment too) and gives the food (depending on the quantity used) an earthy or smoky flavour and a pitch black colour. The use of charcoal as a food additive is more cosmetic than medicinal.

Some of the recipes mentioned……



  • 4 eggs
  • 4 corn tortillas
  • ½ cup salsa
  • ¼ white onion
  • 8 sprigs of cilantro
  • 3 ounces queso ranchero (ranchero cheese)
  • 1 ½ cups refried beans
  • 6 corn chips (for serving)


  1. Beat the eggs, pull the tortillas into short strips and chop the onion and cilantro.
  2. Add the shredded tortillas to 3 tbsp. preheated oil.
  3. Cook stirring occasionally until the tortilla strips are golden and just reaching the point when they become crispy.
  4. Pour the beaten eggs into the pan.
  5. Let the eggs set for 1 minute.
  6. Turn and break up the eggs. Continue cooking until the eggs are just set.
  7. Add ½ cup of your favourite salsa.
  8. Stir well until the migas are thoroughly coated with salsa and cook for 1 minute.
  9. Top your migas with crumbled ranchero cheese, chopped onion, and cilantro. Serve with refried beans and a few corn chips on the side.


  • Stale tortillas make better migas.
  • You can substitute tortilla chips for the fried tortillas.
  • Queso Ranchero – also called – Queso Fresco (“fresh cheese”) is a mild, fresh, soft, and slightly tangy white cheese that browns but won’t melt. It’s easily crumbled and often topped on dishes like enchiladas and tacos (just like cotija cheese), but it isn’t as salty and is much more mild with a light milky flavour. Best Substitute: Paneer with extra salt added, or a very mild feta (French or Danish style).

Queso Fresco (Queso Blanco)


  • 1 gallon (3800ml = 3.8 litres) fresh, whole milk
  • ¼ cup vinegar  (or lemon juice or lime juice)
  • Salt to taste


  1. Heat the milk slowly in a large pot to 185-190 degrees F. (85 – 88 C)
  2. Turn off the heat and stir in your acid – vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice – a spoonful at a time, stirring, until curds form and separate from the yellowish whey. Let it sit for 10-20 minutes.
  3. Set a colander lined with cheesecloth over a bowl and strain the curds from the whey. Discard the whey or keep it for other uses.
  4. Add salt at this stage, if desired, and stir.
  5. Stir the curds up a bit and let it drain for 10-20 minutes.
  6. For firmer cheese, wrap up the ends of the cheesecloth and continue to drain an hour or so. For dense cheese, place a weight over the top of the wrapped cheese (or cheese that has been placed in a cheese mold) that will press it for several hours, until it is packed.


Queso blanco will keep for about a week in the refrigerator, though it is best when used immediately.

Chilaquiles Verdes

Serves : 4


  • 12 corn tortillas cut into triangles or strips
  • 3 Tablespoons oil (for baking the tortillas). See note below
  • 2 cups homemade Salsa Verde (or use your favourite store bought variety)
  • ⅓ cup queso fresco crumbled
  • 2 to 4 eggs (optional)
  • 1 cup cooked shredded chicken breast
  • ½ cup Crema


  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F. (180C)
  2. Brush the corn tortillas triangles with the oil (use 2 Tbsp or as much as needed) and place on a baking in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt.
  3. Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until slightly brown and crispy (or alternatively shallow fry the totopos (tortilla chips) and place on paper towels to absorb the excess oil). Set aside
  4. Meanwhile, add the 2 cups of salsa verde in a medium pan and simmer until hot.
  5. Add the crispy tortilla chips to the pan with the salsa verde and fold until all of the tortillas are bathed in the sauce.
  6. Serve immediately while the tortillas are crispy
  7. Top with crumbled queso fresco and drizzle some Mexican crema
  8. Serve topped with a fried egg (optional) and refried beans.

Charcoal Tortillas (using wheat flour)


  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 10g charcoal powder
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil


  1. Mix together the flour and charcoal in a bowl with 1 tsp salt. Mix the oil and 150ml water into the dry ingredients to form a soft dough. Gently knead for 1-2 mins.
  2. Split the dough into 25-30g pieces and roll each into a paper thin circle shape. Heat a dry pan on the hob until very hot, then fry each tortilla for around 30 seconds on each side. If you wish to remove excess flour these can be brushed lightly with a damp pastry brush to bring out the black colour of the charcoal.

Charcoal tortillas (using masa harina)


  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 2 tablespoons lard
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons Activated Charcoal
  • 1 ½ cups warm water


  1. Combine masa harina, lard, salt, and activated charcoal in a large bowl and mix well.
  2. Add ¾ of the water and mix. You are looking for a consistency which is soft but not crumbly. Add more water as needed. Cover with a damp tea-towel (so the masa doesn’t dry out) and let sit while your comal heats up. 
  3. Using golf ball sized balls of masa dough press them out with your tortilla press
  4. Place tortilla on hot comal and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side. Be careful not to burn them as the normal indications (ie brown spots on your tortilla) may not be as apparent (your tortilla is black dude!!! – well, maybe blueish). Remove and wrap in dry tea-towel. 

Use immediately to make your tacos

The following recipe – Mole Negro de Oaxaca – I nicked wholesale from the Kwillimon website (see Website References below for the address). I have added it here to demonstrate a recipe where the ingredients are not just toasted but actually burnt to carbon. If the appropriate ingredients are merely toasted then the mole will likely turn out a dark reddish-brown. You want to burn those suckers BLACK. It is considered the hardest mole to make and recipes for it can be closely guarded family secrets that are passed down through the generations.

Mole Negro de Oaxaca

Serves approx. 10


  • 8 black chilhuacle chiles, and 2 red chilhuacle chiles if available
  • 6 mulato chiles
  • 6 pasilla chiles, black or chilcoste
  • 1/2 cups chile seeds
  • 2 white onions
  • 7 cloves garlic
  • 3 tomatoes, toasted on a griddle
  • 8 tomatillos, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/2 kilos lard
  • 1 plantain, cut into round slices
  • 1 corn tortillas, charred
  • 1/2 pieces of bread, Oaxacan yolk bread, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/4 cups sesame seeds, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/4 cups peanuts, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/4 cups almonds, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/4 cups pumpkin seeds, toasted on a griddle
  • 1/4 cups raisins, toasted on a griddle
  • 1 teaspoon clove, toasted on a griddle
  • 4 star anise pods, toasted on a griddle
  • 1 teaspoon allspice berries, toasted on a griddle
  • 2 sticks cinnamon, toasted on a griddle
  • 1 teaspoon cumin, whole
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg powder
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1 tablespoon oregano, heirloom
  • 1 teaspoon marjoram
  • 1 leaf bay
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 80 grams chocolate, Oaxacan chocolate
  • 3 avocado leaves
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • Salt

To serve

  • chicken, thighs, drumstick, and breast
  • rice, red
  • corn tortillas


  1. On a griddle, char chiles without burning. Toast chile seeds until they set on fire and stir to turn it off. Soak in water to remove smoky flavour. (the step of soaking these charred ingredients in water will remove the bitter/burnt taste from the final dish. The long cooking time of the dish will also temper the burnt flavours)
  2. Transfer chiles and chile seeds to a blender. Add a bit of soaking water. Blend until smooth. Set aside.
  3. On the griddle, toast onion, garlic, tomatoes, and tomatillos until soft.
  4. Transfer onion, garlic, tomatoes, and tomatillos to a blender and blend until a smooth and homogenous mixture is obtained. Set aside.
  5. Heat a small clay or pewter pot with lard. Fry plantain, tortilla, and bread. Add sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, thyme, heirloom oregano, marjoram, and bay leaf. Cool. Transfer ingredients to a blender. Add chicken broth and blend until smooth. Set aside.
  6. Heat more lard over high heat. Fry chile paste and ground dried fruits. Cook for 15 minutes.
  7. Add mixture made with tomato, tomatillo, garlic, and onion. Add chocolate and dissolve. Add avocado leaves, sugar, and coarse salt. If needed, add a bit more chicken broth until fat is rendered out. Stir constantly.

Serve Oaxacan mole negro with traditional red rice and chicken.


I have mentioned earlier in the Post the various WARNNGS when using charcoal as a medicinal substance. These warnings are more relevant when taking the substance in medicinal quantities rather than the small amounts required for culinary use. This is the same for herbs/spices. The medicinal dose of a herb/spice is generally much higher than when using the same herb/spice to flavour a dish. There are no general toxicity issues with using charcoal or ash. You must however not use a charcoal or ash made from a poisonous plant i.e. oleander.

There has however been some talk about a by-product of (over)cooking called acrylamide. This is kind of relevant as an old home remedy for indigestion/over acidity is the consumption of burnt toast (wheat bread)

Acrylamide is a chemical that can be formed in starchy foods when they’re cooked at very high temperatures — for example, when frying potatoes or making toast. Interestingly enough acrylamide levels are higher in the crust of burnt toast. It is also produced in the coffee bean roasting process (Moksja etal 2013). So I guess this means breakfast can be a dangerous proposition? Coffee and toast anyone?

Studies have shown that (in animals), acrylamide can damage DNA and cause cancer

But so far, eating foods containing acrylamide has not been shown to increase cancer risk in humans

“Since acrylamide was first found in certain foods in 2002, dozens of studies have looked at whether people who eat more of these foods might be at higher risk for certain cancers,” For some types of cancer in humans — including kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancers — the results of these studies have been mixed, with some studies showing an increased risk and others showing no link. Still, “there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake,”

Does acrylamide cause cancer?

  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen.”
  • The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) has classified acrylamide as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
  • The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies acrylamide as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

It’s important to note that these determinations are based mainly on studies in lab animals, and not on studies of people’s exposure to acrylamide from foods. Since the discovery of acrylamide in foods in 2002, the American Cancer Society, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and other organizations have recognized the need for further research on this topic. So far, reviews of studies done in groups of people (epidemiologic studies) suggest that dietary acrylamide isn’t likely to be related to risk for most common types of cancer.

So I can enjoy my burnt toast then?


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