When you hear the word "tortilla", what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Corn, flour or potatoes? You will be astonished to hear that this depends greatly on in which part of the world you live in. Tortilla means different things to different people, depending from which cultural background they come. And the development of the different tortilla dishes is closely related to the history and colonizations of the country that ones ruled over more then half the globe, an empire where the sun was said never to set – Spain. Lets have a look at Spanish history, and the history of the tortilla ;-)

Corn and Wheat Tortillas

As Christopher Columbus reached, what he thought to be India, he discovered a new continent for the Spanish empire. A continent soon to be known under the name "America". One of the civilizations that inhabited said continent, were the Aztecs. These used to make and eat a round, unleavened flatbread made from corn flour. The first spaniards to encounter the Aztecs, the men of the (in)famous Hernando Cortez, called this kind of flatbread "tortilla" from the spanish word "torta" which means "round cake / tort". And "tortilla", being the diminutive of "torta" means "small, round tort / cake".

The traditional way of making the corn flour kind of tortilla (tlaxcalli in the local language) was, and is still in some parts of South Mexico, to soak the corn, removed from the cob, in a mixture of water with lime. Then the skins get removed and the corn is grinned, by hand. The dough is then formed, again by hand, into a patty that is placed into a griddle style pan and cooked over the open fire. But the early history of tortilla making goes back over 5000 years and excavations in Mexico show that a small, wild corn cob formed part of the prehistoric diet of the people of that era. This corn on the cob was a descendent of wild grasses that had been cultivated during the Meso-American civilizations.

As the Spaniards arrived, corn was a staple part of the local diet and numerous tortilla recipes had been developed. For many centuries the corn tortillas were only eaten in this part of the world, but slowly a second cereal, wheat, was introduced in 1542 and the wheat tortilla (tortilla de harina or tortilla de trigo) gained quickly in popularity. Together these two types of making tortilla spread north and later over the big pond to Europe and beyond. Corn tortillas are smaller and thicker, whilst wheat tortillas are thinner and larger. It is also easier to wrap ingredients into a wheat, then into a corn tortilla. Corn tortillas instead are often broken to pieces by the eater and used to "mop up" sauces and gravies.

With the dawn of industrialization machines for (semi)-automated tortilla making were introduced and mechanization made it possible to produce more tortillas in a shorter time. Allowing it the tortilla and its derivates like tacos, burritos and enchiladas to gain worldwide popularity. Another popular form of eating tortilla is by breaking corn tortillas up in small pieces and deep frying them in hot oil, tortilla chips. Today the wheat and corn tortilla varieties are considered mainstream food and around 85 billion tortillas were consumed in 2000 in the USA.

Corn and wheat tortillas are low in fat, sodium and contain a range of B-vitamins and minerals. They are a healthier food then the traditional spanish tortilla which contains high amounts of fat and cholesterol. They are therefore perfect for a healthy diet, especially when combined with a lot of fresh vegetables!

Some fun facts about wheat and corn tortillas. Wheat flour tortillas made it even into space. They are, since 1985 part of the menu on nearly every Space Shuttle mission. They crumble less then bread and "behave well" in zero gravity. But not only this, they are also used in modern art. Especially in the chicano culture, they are often used as a canvas. Tortillas are prepared like usual and after baking get an acrylic coat and are ready to be painted. They symbolize the hispanic culture for such artists as Joe Bravo.

Potato tortilla

Sharing the same name, and the same form, with cereal based tortillas, this kind of tortilla is a European-Spanish invention. The potato was brought to Europe by those same Spaniards that set out to discover the Americas and the corn tortilla. The potato originates in the Andes area of South America, but adapted well to being cultivated in Europe. Soon it was used to "stretch" egg omelets and the Spanish tortilla was born.

In its simplest form it contains only potatoes, salt, oil and eggs. The potato tortilla is known under several names on the European continent, such as tortilla de patatas / papas (patatas / papas being the Spanish words for potato) or tortilla (a la) española / espanyola (Spanish omelette). The Spanish version of the tortilla is eaten, hot or cold, as a snack, starter, appetizer, main course or even in a sandwich (bocadillo) in all parts of the country and could be described as the most Spanish of all dishes. It is more widely spread then the Paella! The simplest tortilla recipe requires diced or sliced potatoes that are slowly cooked in olive oil, drained, salted, mixed with eggs and slowly fried in a pan from both sides. To turn the tortilla in the pan it is either flipped in the air (requires a lot of experience), flipped on a plate / lid and then returned to the pan or with the help of a special tortilla pan. Such a tortilla pan consists of two pans that are hooked together and allows to turn the tortilla without the risk of any spillage. Innumerable variations of this basic recipe exist. Onions, peppers, mushrooms, chorizo, aubergines, bacon, peas, pancetta, ham, asparagus, zucchini, actually all kind of ingredients can be added to a tortilla or can even replace the potatoes completely. Some of these variations were even a special name such as the tortilla paisana (with potatoes, peas and red pepper) or the tortilla de chorizo (with garlicky cured sausage). A popular way of serving all forms of tortilla is the "bocadillo de tortilla" where a slice of tortilla is placed into the middle of a piece of fresh, white baguette.

There are several legends and stories around that try to explain the invention of the Spanish tortilla. All of them have in common that this took place during the Carlist wars, end of the 19th century, in Northern Spain as a quick way to make a satisfying meal for the soldiers. But historically the tortilla is first mentioned, in writing, 1817 in the so-called "Mousehole's memorial", a document from Navarra (a Spanish region) that describes the typical food eaten by the local farmers. So here the historic evidence precedes the legends and fairy tales.

I hope you enjoyed my article about the origin and history of the different tortilla varieties and wish you "!Que Aprovecho!"