Brits get Mexican food wrong all the time. It’s often confounded with Tex-Mex. Anybody proclaiming nachos or burritos as their favourite Mexican food needs to check their chicken fajitas at the door. Tacos is Mexico’s favourite food. So it’s great that the UK is finally catching on and you can find tacos on every other streetfood slingers repertoire. Tacos are infinitely customisable, pork, beef, chicken, cheese, salsa, heck even kimchi. Anything goes! It’s a blank canvas for cooks to express themselves. So why then have I never eaten a good taco in this country?
The answer is simple, for any great taco you need to start with great tortillas. This is true with any equivalent food. Can you really have a good pizza without a good base? Or a good sandwich without good bread? For a lot of people the best tacos are made from corn tortillas. But ask any taco trader where their corn tortillas are from and you’ll get the same answer, ready made in a packet. Some brands are better than others, the ones from Mexgrocer are slightly better than Cool Chile but are still stale and tasteless. Fresh corn tortillas should taste of sweetcorn with a slightly sour alkali tang from the nixtamalisation.
In the UK we don’t have neighbourhood tortillerías (tortilla shops) that churn out fresh tortillas daily. It’s hard enough to find dried corn to nixtalimise here. But there is a way to get really good results without having to resort to masa harina, which is never fresh and for some reason costs way more than ground corn is worth. Masa harina is like instant coffee, it’s dried and finely ground masa preparada. Masa preparada is the fresh dough (masa) made from grinding freshly cooked whole nixtamalised corn. So you see masa harina is the second hand version of this and has lost all that interesting texture and flavour.
You can make masa preparada starting with dried hominy corn. Which can be found cheaply in any Caribbean or African food store. There’s yellow or white, either is fine, try a mixture for more visual appeal. Here’s how to make masa preparada with it:
- In just enough water to cover the corn, boil it till slightly tender around 15 mins. You may need to top up with boiling water to keep the expanding corn covered.
- Drain, reserving some of the liquor.
- Whilst the corn is still warm grind through a coarse plate (your grinder will thank you for this).
- To the coarsely ground corn add back a little water or reserved liquor, a little salt and mix briefly so a pliable soft dough can be formed.
- Grind this coarse mixture through a fine plate.
- If you want it super fine grind again (I don’t bother as I like having texture in my masa).
- Bring the masa together, it should form a soft pliable ball of dough very easily. There’s no kneading required.
- Test the masa is hydrated enough by pinching a little off and squeezing it into a disc. The edge should not crack. If it does sprinkle a little more water onto the masa and massage it in.
- Set the masa aside for at least 15 minutes. It will keep in the fridge covered for a couple of days. When you want tortillas, just pinch a few balls off and get the tortilla press out.
Press out whatever sized tortillas you like, cook them briefly on a hot plate. Do not dry them out by overcooking them. They are cooked anyway and all you are doing is setting them into shape. As you press the edges down when the tortillas are cooking they should puff up (like a chapati) as the trapped steam tries to escape. This makes for a light and pliable tortilla. Something you will never get with a ready made one.
Stack your tortillas up to keep them warm and moist before filling them with delicious things for tacos.
Or take it further, a tortilla is the basic building block for so many great Mexican dishes.