Mexican

The Tricky, Twisty History of Flour Tortillas

March  3, 2018

Wait, flour tortillas are Jewish? That doesn’t sound right. Actually, it sounds so wrong, I couldn’t stop wondering, wondering, all thanks to this late-night stumble-upon in the Houston Chronicle. (What am I doing looking at decade-old news stories on tortillas? Oh, who knows?) I always understood flour tortillas to be a Tex-Mex staple—and they are—but apparently, they were around long before Texas (1845) or Mexico (1824). By then, people had been grinding wheat into flour, which was mixed into dough, which was pressed into patties, which was cooked into floppy, flaky tortillas, for several centuries. Who, though?

There was a small influx of Jewish immigrants to the Texas-Mexico border region in the 1500s—conversos hiding their faith to avoid persecution—then greater numbers during the Mexican independence movement in the early 1800s. The Houston Chronicle is talking about the first wave: “Since corn was not kosher and they were accustomed to eating flat pita bread, they began to make tortillas out of wheat.”

If you’re wondering why corn isn’t kosher, same. I’m Jewish but not kosher (because bacon) but some of my relatives are. Pork and shellfish: no go. Meat with milk: definitely not. But corn? Why? A little digging—and a New Yorker piece—sorted this out. Well, kind of: Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat grains (like wheat, barley, and rye) during Passover, an homage to our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt when they escaped so speedily, there was no time for bread to rise. In addition to these grains, they also don’t eat legumes and friends, like rice and corn. Ah-hah! you say. Corn! But—there’s always a but—most Jews from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East never followed such restrictions.

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So, the Jews who could have created flour tortillas—the ones who moved to the New World in the 1500s—probably had nothing against corn. And they did have something against one of flour tortillas’ three ingredients: lard. Nowadays, you can make them with butter or vegetable shortening. At the time, though, lard was the only shelf-stable fat around. Which means, flour tortillas weren’t kosher. Which means, flour tortillas probably aren’t Jewish. Which means, what are they?


Corn tortillas’ history is clearer—and older. Flashback for a hot second to Mesoamerica: Maya civilization started around 2000 B.C. Aztec civilization started sometime in the 13th century. As Margarita Carrillo Arronte describes in Mexico: The Cookbook: “The major food that the Mayas, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican people shared was corn.” Mayas believed that people were born from corn and, like the Aztecs—who called themselves Mexicas—they worshipped corn gods, even sacrificed humans to keep them happy. To Carrillo Arronte, corn’s cultural significance can’t be overstated:

Without corn we have no country. Corn is the staple food throughout [Mexico] and especially in the Central and Southern regions where it is consumed by all Mexicans virtually every day...Dried corn saw the people of Mesoamerica through their year. The dough or masa made from ground corn kernels was pressed flat, cooked on a small pan called a comal, and eaten daily as tortillas.

Here’s the catch, though: Those corn tortillas weren’t called corn tortillas. They weren’t, in fact, called any one term. I chatted with Pati Jinich, cookbook author and host of the Emmy- and James Beard–nominated PBS program Pati’s Mexican Table, and she referenced the Nahuatl word tlaxcalli. “But,” she said, “this was just one of many civilizations that spoke many languages.”

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Top Comment:
“At that time Hispanic people in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were eating Corn tortillas, they had no idea what a wheat flour tortillas was. Also that first Mexican cookbook from 1831 just had recipes from central and southern Mexico. Which would probably mean that the flour tortilla is from Southern Mexico.”
— Saul
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So where did the word tortilla come from? Follow its etymology back, back, back, and you’ll find the Spanish word torta, or cake. And the Spanish, it turns out, are the lynchpin to all of this. Their brutal New World conquest began in 1492 and reached Mexico in 1519. There were countless cultural differences between them and the native communities, not the least of which was starch preference.

Corn was crucial to the Aztecs and surrounding communities, but the Spanish were not into it. Melissa Guerra, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, explained: “There has always been a European prejudice against corn. It was seen as junk food. There’s this quote in French: Potatoes are for pigs. Corn is for cows.”

What starch did the Spanish Catholics eat, then? You guessed it—wheat. “That was the ingredient they knew and liked,” Jinich said. “Most importantly, it was an ingredient they connected to Jesus Christ. To them, wheat was holy. And corn—they didn’t know what to make of it.” In turn, they, quite literally, didn’t make anything of it. They brought wheat to the region and used that instead.

“Wheat traditions belong to the people of the Fertile Crescent, regardless of religion,” Guerra said. “I have heard of Germans that have claimed ownership of flour tortillas in Texas, also Lebanese. All are plausible.” But none are unequivocal. Flour tortillas’ past, it seems, doesn’t belong to any one culture.

Its present, of course, does: Mexican. In the United States, there’s a fair amount of confusion, even stigma, around flour tortillas. Some assume they aren’t authentic. Others insist that they’re inferior to corn. Jinich, who grew up in Mexico, couldn’t disagree more: “Flour tortillas are very Mexican,” she says. “I don’t choose one over the other, at all, just like any Mexican.”

Flour tortillas are certainly more common in the northern part of the country, where the terroir is more suited to growing wheat than corn. But they’re both integral to Mexican—and Tex-Mex—cuisine. And Taco Bell’s Double Decker taco. Which just wouldn’t have been a thing in the 1500s. This, it seems, is the biggest difference between when flour tortillas came to be and what they are today. Centuries ago, your preference between corn or wheat revealed where you lived, where you came from, who you worshipped. But nowadays, we can have it all.

Do you have a preference between corn or flour tortillas? Tell us why in the comments.

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

56 Comments

Steeeve April 24, 2020
I'm confused, why are you calling corn and rice legumes? They are both grass seed and therefor grains same as wheat. Legumes are peas and beans.

I love both types of tortillas. I do have some preferences depending on what type of food they are used for though. Tacos are better with flour because they tend to be softer and less brittle when unheated. Enchiladas are better with corn because it stays firm when wet. Corn is tastier when crispy in foods like tostadas and hard shell "tacos". Though both are good as fried food such as chimichangas and taquitos.
 
Smaug April 24, 2020
The phrase was "...don't eat legumes and friends, like rice and corn..."; presumably the reference was to rice and corn being strongly associated with legumes- ie friends- and not to the actual consumption of one's friends and neighbors.
 
Fullmoon T. January 21, 2020
I like both flour and corn tortillas. It depends on what I am eating that moment which I prefer and it fluctuates. Chile Verde goes well with flour. Sopa, fideo tomato soup I prefer corn tortillas. Caldo, I prefer corn. Chile Colorado, I prefer flour. I like both flour and corn quesadillas. I tend to lean more towards favoring flour tortilla because I can tote a burrito on the go. I have to sit down with tacos, because I don't want to wear my food. I like both but I have to say flour tortillas supersedes corn. My grandmother made both flour and corn. I was born in California, USA in a small town named Visalia. The article is interesting. Will we ever know who really is responsible for the flour tortilla?
 
Joy January 21, 2020
Fullmoon T.!! OMG! I was born and raised in Exeter (11 miles east of Visalia). Small world, huh? Are you still there?
 
Smaug January 21, 2020
Probably whoever first milled flour, but it's about the most basic and obvious thing you can do with flour and, basic flatbreads have no doubt been invented independently by many. In fact, I invented them myself yesterday- I was messing around with some experiments with a basic flour dough, and ended up with some crackers and a couple of quesadillas.
 
Russ November 9, 2019
Loved this article and all the readers’ and author’s comments, suggestions, personal memories, cultural insights, corrections, amendments .. even a wonderful recipe! .. As for my own .. I would encourage everyone to have a go at “making your own” .. whether flour, corn, or a combination .. the flavor, texture and aroma are incomparable .. particularly if you can get hold of heirloom varieties of flour and/or corn .. With just a tiny bit of practice you will delight family and friends, and question how on earth did you ever eat store bought?!:)
 
Saul August 26, 2019
Interesting subject. I personally don’t think they have anything to do with Jewish culture. If people were making corn tortillas someone it is just possible that someone just thought “hey let’s make wheat tortillas.” It isn’t that complicated. Mexico’s first cookbook in 1831 had a included a recipe for Wheat flour tortillas.

Another thing is that until the first half of the 20th Century, the vast majority of wheat production was in central and southern Mexico; places like Jalisco, Hidalgo, Mexico State, Querétaro, Guanajuato, Oaxaca and Michoacán. Northern Mexico did have wheat production until the late 19th century. At that time Hispanic people in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were eating Corn tortillas, they had no idea what a wheat flour tortillas was. Also that first Mexican cookbook from 1831 just had recipes from central and southern Mexico. Which would probably mean that the flour tortilla is from Southern Mexico.
 
Steeeve April 24, 2020
This makes more sense. It would take less for someone used to making tortillas to try making them out of wheat than someone used to wheat to try wheat tortillas. I'll bet the first wheat fields were tended to by enslaved natives who likely would have used some wheat to make tortillas.
 
Christina R. May 5, 2019
I grew up in El Paso, Texas which is lies in the border of Juarez, Mexico. We had a mix of delicious authentic Mexican food and the more southwestern style Mexican food- both being pretty good. It would be hard for a nonlocal to discriminate between the two. Some things were set in stone such as street tacos always had corn tortillas, burritos always had flour tortilla and enchiladas had corn as well. Tacos were either flour or corn and flautas were always corn.
Quesadillas could be made with either one.:)
I'm seriously starving now that I've written all this! Ha!
 
Lorian F. November 23, 2018
There's a long history of "flour tortillas" in Norway, too. What we think of as lefse today includes potatoes, but lefse was made with just wheat flour for centuries prior to the introduction of potatoes to northern Europe.
 
Joy January 21, 2020
Since my m-I-l passed away, I have missed my Lefse fixes. I would love to find a great recipe to make them for my grandkids.
 
Laura October 26, 2018
I enjoyed reading this.
Tonight at a Mexican restaurant I sat next to a family with a member who couldn’t eat corn. They were surprised that the restaurant didn’t offer flour tortillas. No surprise to me. This is a legit place. But instead of acting like I knew about the origin of corn tortillas, I wanted to read something about it. Thank you!
 
ER September 11, 2018
Actually, the crypto-Jews avoided pork and still do. They made wheat tortillas with milk for softer ones or just water, and if available, used beef suet and much later, vegetable oil.
 
Raul M. March 14, 2018
I was blessed with a nana who made both corn and flour tortillas. Corn tortillas were for enchiladas, enfrijoladas (bean sauce), and entomaladas (spicy tomato sauce). Flour tortillas were either "Sonorenses" (large and thin) or "gorditas" (small and thicker--good with soup). A special treat was "mayos." A food of necessity developed during WWII when lard and shortening were rationed and the government distributed coupons for a monthly allotment of mayonnaise. My family never ate mayonnaise, but recognized its high fat content and used it to make tortillas. They were soft and tangy, like sourdough.
 
Cynthia March 13, 2018
Rprp -- can't find any other comment from Rprp -- but that's good to know. Thanks.
 
Rebecca F. March 13, 2018
Much prefer corn, and for tacos and enchiladas it is imperative. Prefer the nutritional profile of corn to flour tortillas also, but am liking some of the whole grain flour tortillas for quesadillas or the occasional breakfast wrap.
 
Rprp March 12, 2018
Cynthia..corn was not ever considered not kosher. That's an error. See my earlier comment
 
Cynthia March 12, 2018
Fun article -- I appreciated the information on why corn was viewed as non-kosher by some Jews. I'm the author of the book "Midwest Maize," which covers a lot of corn history, but being about corn, didn't examine flour tortillas -- so glad to learn that part of the story.

Sadly, the Spanish and Portuguese did find a use for corn -- they took it all over the world (back when the whole world had been declared equally divided between the two countries), introducing it to a wide range of people, though usually the poor or potential slaves. Sad, because they didn't learn anything from the indigenous people of the Americas about how to process the corn/maize, so the niacin-deficiency disease pellagra came into existence. But the movement of food around the world is a big topics. Lovely to get one more part of the picture in focus.
 
Anne-Marie March 12, 2018
Emma, thanks for the food history lesson; fascinating!
Personally, I prefer flour tortillas (fresh whenever possible) over corn (unless the tortillas are of the crunchy variety) because of texture issues - I'm one of THOSE people who can't eat food that feels weird to them - ha, ha. My husband prefers the corn tortillas - because flour can be too mushy. We have interesting taco nights, for sure! In the end, does it really matter? We're all one, united by our love of all things taco (or burrito).
 
Emily S. March 12, 2018
Wow, I read this article thinking this was a lot of info about food--which, to be honest I just like to eat. And then I read the comments, proving some people wanted even more info! Lol. In seriousness though, it was an interesting read even if there seemed to be no major conclusion. I think corn and flour each have their places, but you can't add sugar and butter to a warm corn tortilla and make one of my [Asian] dad's favorite fast treats. ;)
 
Linda C. March 12, 2018
When I was little corn tortilla was the only one used in our house and in resturantx and now the flour ones are more prominent and I have to ask for the corn ones which I prefer I seem to find them more tasty.
 
deborah March 12, 2018
Hello Emma: I recommend that you read our take on Corn and Flour tortillas in our book, The Tacopedia. best Déborah Holtz
 
AngelinaLaRue March 12, 2018
Thanks, Emma - I enjoyed this!
 
Virginia March 12, 2018
I like both corn and flour tortillas, but prefer corn, love the taste of corn. Born and raised in Latin America, not Mexico, I grew up eating both.
 
Rosalind P. March 12, 2018
Cristina -- thanks for the history overview. Real history is more interesting than, well, not real history, and it seems that on the questions you write about as well as the other errors (about grains and Jewish practice), there was a lot of misinformation (although, as you noted, cleverly written). The silver lining is that those errors brought your clarification, as well as clarification on other points, so we all got to learn a lot and appreciate an aspect of Mexican culture. Thanks for taking the time to sort that out.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 12, 2018
Hi Rosalind, thanks for reading! Please see my note to Cristina below.