Have you every heard of vitamin T? It is the nutritional compound that is quintessential to every Mexican’s survival, and it may well be Mexico’s secret to happiness. Mexico is ranked 14th in the 2015 World Happiness Report, which is well above Belgium (19th) and the United Kingdom (21st). In order to help you get your full daily intake of vitamin T, I have here listed its main sources: tacos, tortas, tamalas and tostadas. Because many people confuse tacos for tortillas or vice versa, I will start with the basics first:
Tortillas are a type of soft flatbread not dissimilar from a pancake in outlook. They can be made out of corn flour or wheat flour. It is the wheat tortilla that you readily encounter in our European supermarkets. But contrary to what you might have expected, the wheat tortilla is not widely consumed in Mexico. The wheat variation is more typical of the northern states of Mexico, while the majority of the country mainly consumes the corn type (only eating the wheat tortilla in combination with specific dishes such as Alambre: grilled beef topped with onions, bell peppers and cheese). The tortilla is one of the country’s ultimate staple foods. Mexican dishes are either eaten with a tortilla on the side or they are made up out of tortillas. Tortillas are rolled or shopped up and combined with a rich variety in sauces and fillings.
In order to create a taco, a tortilla is folded around a filling. Fillings can be any type of meat, fish or vegetable. A multitude of garnishes can be added, ranging from various sauces (‘red’ and ‘green’ sauces being the most common ones), pico de gallo (literally translated as ‘rooster’s beak’, it is a mix of chopped onion, tomato, chilli and cilantro) to avocado or guacamole. Whenever I arrive from abroad, my first stop is one of Mexico City’s many taquerías – the street vendors or small restaurants selling tacos, no matter the hour. Seated at little plastic tables or simply standing in the street, tacos are eaten straight out of the hand. Any Mexican will be able to show you the complex hand movements that allow you to fold the taco in such a way that its fillings and juices won’t end up all over your t-shirt (still, you will spot many well-trained consumers with stains down theirs). Taco sellers are extremely skilled. They will serve a dozen customers at the same time, all the while having one eye on the TV, watching some Mexican soap opera. They do not write down your order nor do they take note of those extra tacos you keep asking for while you down some beers. But don’t be fooled, they know exactly what you owe them. And they do not take kindly to people trying to rip them off.
While a torta is a sweet cake in Spain and various Latin-American countries, in Mexico it is a sandwich. And similarly to the taco, a torta can include any possible type of filling. But really, for the torta anything goes – the bigger the better. Take the ‘torta cubana’ for instance. This sandwich has an endless amount of potential ingredients. One torta cubana can include mayonnaise or crème, cheese, refried beans, avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion rings, ham, sausage, a chunk of roasted pork leg and a piece of Milanese (a thin pork steak deep-fried in breadcrumbs).
Tamales are made out of masa (a corn-based dough) and steamed in a corn or banana leaf. These dumpling-like delicacies can be either savoury or sweet. They can be eaten for breakfast or dinner and are usually consumed together with atole, a maize-based beverage. Mexico has a rich variety in tamales. The most popular tamales are prepared with chicken or pork in either green sauce or mole (a thick, savoury sauce with a chilli and chocolate base). Sweet tamales are filled with dried fruits. One of the most characteristic Mexico City sounds stems from the city’s tamales vendors. They pass through the streets on their cargo bikes, pushing big steamy pots out in front of them, while a recording of a high-pitched voice blasts through their speakers, screaming “HAY TAMALES!!!”
Tostadas are deep-fried or toasted tortillas. They can be used as a sort of toast to accompany a dish (especially stews or seafood) or they can be eaten as a dish in themselves, you simply need to add any variation of the above-mentioned toppings. I love tostadas with sour crème and bits of cheese.
© Marjolein, Life in Mexican Colours