Posts Tagged ‘tortilla


making new foods familiar

Wednesday‘s NYT article on Korean tacos made me think of Richard Wilk’s Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists, which discusses, in depth and in the context of Belizean cuisine, six ways in which cuisines interact and exchange elements. One of those six is, of course, wrapping or stuffing: “physically enclosing something new or foreign within a familiar wrapper, or vice versa.”

White bread or hamburger buns can civilize otherwise low-status local foods, “making them acceptable to middle class and foreign tastes.” In Belize, the result is something similar to the Mexican torta compuesta; Belizeans are even able to civilize gibnut* (a jungle rodent) by using a bun to dress it up as a hamburger. Local, low-status food + foreign, high-status form = sudden acceptability.

Wilk also notes that local wrappings can make foreign foods local. In Belize, “canned tomato paste and Campbell’s vegetable soup” make their way into tamales wrapped in locally familiar banana leaves. In Mexico, he says, corn tortillas play the role of banana leaves “in wrapping all kinds of ingredients; the name of the dish and the mode of preparation as tacos or enchiladas or gorditas remains familiar, even if the stuffing is alien or strange.”

And now, restaurateur John Ban tells us, corn tortillas are a familiar enough wrapper in the United States that they can turn Korean barbeque into recognizably American food.

Note that this essential Americanness did not skip the humble Tex-Mex flour tortilla for the newer-to-these-shores but more “authentic” corn version; think of every wrap joint you’ve ever been to. Though perhaps that’s a case of the fillings, which undoubtedly cater to a particularly bland American taste, civilizing the wrapper. And giving “wrap” makers the latitude to take out the lard and replace it with spinach. Or flax seeds. Or whatever.

Maybe the very American health consciousness of the wrap is a way of mitigating any remaining suspicions that its form–essentially a street food–might arouse that the wrapper “conceals suspicious or even dangerous ingredients.”

* Gibnut is technically Cuniculus paca. WIkipedia reports that it is known as “paca” throughout most of its range, which extends from central Mexico to northern Argentina. The article proceeds to give the other names by which it is known in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Guyana, Trinidad, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru–leaving us to wonder where it is actually called “paca.”

The most interesting names for today’s discussion are its Latin name (cuniculus being part of the scientific name for rabbit) and those from Panama (conejo pintado, or “painted rabbit”) and the Venezuela-Guyana-Trinidad axis (lapa-labba-lappe, all variations on the French lapin, meaning “rabbit”). Civilizing foreign ingredients through language.

For those familiar with the campo cuisine of Guatemala, we are of course talking about tepezcuintle here. It’s not bad: white meat, pleasantly gamy, though a little stringy.



1491: a restaurant recommendation

While Courtney and Eva were in town for Bay to Breakers, we puttered around North Beach and, of course, into City Lights Books. Where I was delighted to discover a book called Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes. The clerk who rung me up was fascinated, too, and I told him that I’d been thinking a lot about cuisine, nation-building, and identity over the past couple of years. He asked if I’d read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I told him it was in my bag, about a quarter read. He told me to look out for the restaurant recommendation in the middle. He said he wanted to go there just thinking about it. This morning, I hit it: Itanoní in la ciudad de Oaxaca.

“[M]asa must be cooked within a few hours of being ground, and the tortilla should be eaten soon after it is cooked. Hot is best, perhaps folded over with mushrooms or cheese in a tlacoyo. Like a glass of wine, [proprietor Amado Ramírez Leyva] said, a tortilla should carry the flavor of its native place. ‘You want to try some?'”

I did. The smells in the shop–dry-toasted maize, melting farm cheese, squash flowers sautéing in home-pressed oil–were causing my stomach to direct urgent messages to my brain.”

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