Sunday, March 1, 2009

My Oh Mayan

It has been too cold for too long.

If you're from Metro Vancouver, this is not news. With the cold as motivation, J. and I searched the Internet for a couple inexpensive fares to an all-inclusive somewhere in Mexico. I had never been to the Mayan Riviera side, so we picked a great resort near Playa del Carmen called the Blue Bay Grand Esmerelda.

Don't worry, resort food doesn't make an appearance ... although it was pretty good.

Now, the purpose of any trip that includes the words "all inclusive" will likely not have anything to do with culture. Primarily, we were going to Mexico to a) warm up, b) catch up on our reading, and c) drink our weight in fruity tequila drinks. Nothing fancy, just some good old fashioned r & r.

It was through the resort however that we decided to take in an excursion. It seemed the appropriately touristy thing to do, and would keep us from too many fruity tequila drinks. The trip was to the Mayan archaeological ruins in Coba, and included a visit with a "Real Mayan Family."

To say I was a somewhat skeptical about the last part of the tour is a bit of an understatement. It was over-the-top touristy. Dress some locals in traditional garb, throw in a sombrero and a mule ... instant authenticity. Well, I'm here to say that my gut instincts were right ... or at least partially so.

The house was literally a shack at the end of a dirt road so narrow our bus could barely open its doors to let us off. We were introduced to the family (all 58 of us!) and marched into their living/sleeping/cooking room. 3 women and 3 little girls greeted us with huge smiles as our tour guide (Katya) told us how these people were truly happy with what little they had. When Katya told us they made all their own clothes, one of the women sat down at the sewing machine. When she told us they slept in hammocks, one of the girls jumped up in the hammock. Oh, and did we mention that clothing items and hammocks are for sale in the back yard?

Cynicism aside, after getting over the weird sensation that these incredible friendly people were in some sort of human zoo, it was a pretty interesting visit.

When I entered the back yard, the smell of smoke alerted me that something was cooking. Tortillas. Hand-made, corn tortillas. The women of the family were gathered around a squat table, each churning out tortillas at the rate of about 3 or 4 per minute. Hands grabbed the precise amount of dough and began flattening it against a sheet of plastic wrap. With rhythmic precision they turned the dough as the pressed it, chatting amongst themselves in a ritual that has been instilled in them for generations.

There was an ease to the ritual. The women spoke with each other, seemingly oblivious to the work their hands were doing. One woman called after her young daughter while effortlessly flipping a cooking tortilla. The little girls watched intently, memorizing what they would be doing with their children when the time came.

I too started memorizing the motions. Turn push turn push .... pat pat pat. Seemed pretty straight forward, so I asked Katya if I might have a try. Both Katya and the Mayan women were a little surprised, as no male tourista had ever asked to try his hand at making tortillas. I was more than happy to be the guinea pig.

I reached in and grabbed what I thought to be the right amount of dough, only to have it snatched from my hand. The Mayan woman giggled a little (there would be much giggling to follow) and pulled off a portion of the dough and returned it to the main pile, handing the smaller ball of dough back to me. And so I tried to repeat what I had seen. Turn push turn push ... pat pat pat.

Giggle giggle giggle.

Apparently I was doing quite well, at first. It was round ... ish. Getting the tortilla to the correct thickness was a problem for me though, as I didn't have my edges smooth enough before I started to flatten it. But I soldiered on until I had something I thought was ready for the griddle.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I spend a lot of time cooking around fire. My hands, I feel, can take a lot of heat. So, I figured a tortilla griddle should be no trouble. The Mayan woman was flipping tortillas on and off like nothing, right? Trouble was, her hands know exactly how that tortilla is going to behave in her hands, and how it's going to fall out of her hand and onto the griddle. I didn't. And the hot griddle makes no exceptions for Canadians who think they can get tortilla-making right on the first try. So rather than burning the finger prints off my fingers while I clumsily placed the tortilla, I let more experienced hands cook my tortilla.

Before I tried my tortilla, I had to taste the real deal. They were wonderful. Lots of corn taste, unlike the flour tortillas we'd been eating at the resort; apparently gringos don't like corn tortillas. This gringo begs to differ. Corn tortillas are the only way to go, and these were soft, pliable and utterly delicious.

As for mine? It tasted .... thick. But for a first try I was somewhat pleased.

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L Vanel said...

Oooooh. I just got a whole bunch of masa, both for tacos and for tamales. So please please share the techniques and tips for working with Masa. Please. Arne.

Arne Salvesen said...

The dough is pretty dense, so it requires a gentle touch. What I learned was that you need to get it round before your get it flat. The women in Coba took a gob-stopper size piece of dough (about 3/4" round) and flatened it slightly on a piece of plastic wrap. Then using the fingers, push the dough outwards using the edge of your other hand to keep the edge smooth. Once you get the tortilla down to about 1/8" thick, start patting the tortilla down to about 1/16" thick.

Don't rush it. Masa works on Mexico time.

Tamales! Mmmmmmm. Really good with pulled pork! :-)

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