Mexican X-plainer: Al-Andalus & the Flour Tortilla

If you search for information about the origin of flour tortillas, you’ll find all sorts of notions. They were Spanish copies of indigenous corn tortillas, some will assert. They definitely aren’t Mexican, others will clamor, but instead some gabacho (US) monstrosity.

Puro pedo. Flour tortillas are definitely Mexican, but with Ibero-Arabic roots.

Before I can begin that argument, some folx on the other side will counter, “Well, they aren’t indigenous to Mesoamerica.”

Okay, let’s start in Mesoamerica. In Nahuatl, corn tortillas are “tlaxcalli,” from the verb “ixca” (to cook [on a comal: grill or griddle]). Transitive verbs in that language must have an object. When you’re not naming a specific object, you need to use the indefinite object “tla-” at the beginning of the verb. So to say “s/he cooks” you use “tla-” + “ixca” → “tlaxca” (you drop the initial “i-” because of the “a”). Literally “s/he cooks stuff.”

Adding the absolutive suffix “-lli” makes a noun, tlaxcalli: “a thing or stuff that’s cooked.” It’s a word like “cookie” (also “cooked thing”) or “biscuit” (“twice-cooked thing”).

Because tortillas weren’t made in Southern Mesoamerica before the 8th century CE (AD), Mayan languages availed themselves of different existing terms. For example, in Southern Mexico, in Maayat’aan (Yucatec Mayan), it’s “waah.” In Chontal and Tzeltal, “wah.” In Tzotzil, “vah.” These all come from Proto-Mayan *wah (“food/to feed”). The ancient glyph could also be read “ol” or “heart.”

Ancient Mayan glyph for “tortilla” or “heart.”

And so on. More than sixty different indigenous languages, all with different words for this flatbread, usually made of nixtamalized corn flour. But not always. Tlaxcalli could be made of bean flour (“tlaxcalli etlaōyoh”) or amaranth (“tzohuallaxcalli”), among other ingredients. Dozens of types are attested.

Now, when the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica, they adopted many Nahuatl words for unfamiliar foods. But not “tlaxcalli” (even though the nation of Tlaxcallan [“place of the tlaxcalli”] was their principal ally in the conquest).

Why not?

Because the Spanish already had very similar flatbreads. Tortillas.

And they didn’t just repurpose that name for Mesoamerican tlaxcalli.

Tlaxcalli

The indigenous people of Panamá also make a sort of flatbread from corn. The Spanish called it a tortilla, too.*

Panamanian Tortilla Asada

You see, “tortilla” is the diminutive of “torta,” which evolved from a shortened form of Latin “torta panis” or “twisted bread.” That word appears in Romanian (turtă), French (tourte), Italian (torta), etc. Spanish “torta” probably arose from variation *turta because regular “torta” had its “o” diphthongized as Vulgar Latin became Medieval Spanish, becoming “tuerta,” (“twisted”).

Torta came to mean “cake” (whether sweet or not), but “tortilla” was used to name certain flatbreads in Islamic Iberia. You’re undoubtedly familiar with “pita” bread, which is called khobz or khubz in most of the Arabic world (to be accurate, “khubz” is a generic word for any bread, usually cooked in flat, round loafs). There are TONS of varieties of this flatbread

Now, you may not be aware of this, but most of what we now call Spain was part of Al-Andalus or Islamic Iberia from about 700 to 1300 C.E. In a society ruled by Muslims, replete with Arabic language and cuisine, the emergent Spanish culture adopted many Arabic customs, words, and recipes. And we know historically that two sorts of khubz were common in Islamic Iberia: raghīf and ruqāq.

Raghīf (or raghīf al-khobz) is a relatively thin wheat flatbread mentioned repeatedly in Medieval Iberian recipes. It is made from flour, water and oil, prepared almost identically to how flour tortillas are made in Mexico and the US Southwest.

An entry in a 17th-century dictionary of Arabic terms.

I mean, look at a picture of raghīf al-khobz puffing up on a griddle.

Raghīf on the griddle.

Now compare it to a flour tortilla doing the same.

Tortilla de harina en un comal.

If you have doubts, I encourage you to watch this video of a woman preparing raghīf al-khobz … she’s speaking Arabic, but you’ll hear “farina” (harina) repeated again and again. (Note that “farina” is also the Medieval Spanish word for “flour,” derived from Latin. It’s used in some dialects of Arabic alongside the original word “daqīq.”)

If you dubbed the video with an abuelita explaining the steps in Spanish, you’d never know the difference.

(youtu.be/CNfoFY5YGHk)

The other flatbread common in Iberia when “tortilla” arose was [khobz] ruqāq, a thinner, bigger type often folded. Just look at this stack of ruqāqa.

Big stack of ruqāqa.

Remind you of anything, raza?

Stack of flour tortillas.

So, yes, tortillas de harina are NOT an indigenous Mesoamerican food (though they sure as hell are similar … had wheat existed in Mesoamerican, the Maya and others would have made them em).

But they aren’t USian, either.

They are Arabic, like big chunks of our mestizo culture. There are a couple of medieval cookbooks from Al-Andalus available online, if you want to learn more.

LET’S ADDRESS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. This is what the Spanish call a tortilla nowadays:

Tortilla from Spain. Yeah, not Mexican AT ALL.

How did it become this weird quiche-omelette hybrid?

Though “tortilla” meant “flatbread” originally, it came to mean “round, sort of big cooked thing.” The Marquis Enrique de Villena says in his (creepy) Art of Carving (1423) “There are other compound things to cut, like cheese or eggs fried up in tortilla form.”

By the time of the conquest, the “tortilla de huevo” was very common, and Cortez was surprised to find that the Aztecs had them, too. In a letter he writes, “They sell hens’ eggs and those of geese, as well as all of the other birds I mentioned; they sell tortillas made of eggs.”

The Florentine Codex lists “tōtoltetlaxcalli” among the many sorts of “tortillas” — it means “turkey-egg tortilla.” A Mesoamerican omelette.

With time (and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, whose flatbread found its way to New Spain), “tortilla” became “omelette” in Spain, where “torta” continues meaning “round [unsweetened] cake” and “tortita” is the new diminutive meaning something like “pancake.”

Elsewhere in Latin American, “torta” has come to mean “sweet cake” (with noticeable exceptions like Mexico, where it’s a sort of sandwich). In many countries, a “tortilla española” is an omelette. Confusing to backpackers and globetrotters alike, trust me.

In addition to the Ibero-Arabic origin of flour tortillas, there’s a theory that conversos / crypto-Jews would eat this thin flatbread during ritual times like Passover (when only unleavened bread made of wheat, spelt, barley, rye, or oat is allowed). It IS very similar to unleavened soft matzah (basically kosher tortillas), so I wouldn’t be surprised!

Here’s more data for you. First Columbus and then the Conquistadores brought with them regañás … a sort of hard-tack tortilla made with olive oil and wheat flour that could endure the long ocean voyages. Also, Catalan cuisine had its own analogue for the tortilla-like flatbread, the coca — plural coques.

In other parts of Latin America, we also find wheat-flour flatbreads called “tortilla,” like the “tortilla cochabambina” of Bolivia …

Tortilla Cochabambina

… or the “tortilla santiagueña” of Argentina (cooked on a grill like so many other delicious food from that country — check out this video).

Tortillas Santiagueñas

And Chile has its “tortilla de rescoldo” as well, made over campfires by rural travelers.

Tortilla de rescoldo.

While we may never know the exact way these originally Middle-Eastern flatbreads made their way from Spain to Northern Mexico (and the rest of Latin America), it’s clear they did. They are not some weird aberration that arose after the Conquest, some sort of gachupín or gabacho aping of the holy tlaxcalli.

So stop talking smack about flour tortillas and just throw some on the comal. Smear ’em with butter. Enjoy. Life’s short.

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*A weird exception is the Colombian/Venezuelan arepa, also a corn-meal cake. The 16th-century explorer Galeotto Cei said of the arepa: “They make another sort of cornbread in the style of tortillas, about a finger thick, round and as big as tea plates, more or less, and they set them cooking in pans upon an open fire.” Paolo Vetrò has pointed out to me that the original Italian reads, “Altre sorte di pane fanno a modo di stiacciatine, alte un dito […] et questa sorte chiamano areppas.” Stiacciatine is a sort of flatbread (like pizza crust), much like tortillas in Spain at the time.