Chef Hugo Ortega calls masa, the corn dough used to make tortillas, the foundation of Mexican cuisine. At his restaurants, Hugo’s and Caracol, he prepares masa and tortillas the old-fashioned way like he learned from his grandmother as a child. The process begins by cooking dried corn in a mixture of water and cal (ground limestone) and allowing it to rest overnight. The next morning, Ortega grinds the corn into masa, which is then rolled into balls, flattened and cooked. It’s not necessarily easy to do in a restaurant setting, but for Ortega it’s the only way to do it.

tortillas from Paula Murphy on Vimeo.

Ortega, who was nominated once again this year for the Best Chef: Southwest James Beard Award, is currently working on opening Hugo’s Cocina at Terminal D of George Bush’s International Airport. He talked to us about the importance of tortillas to him and Mexican cuisine.

Why are tortillas so meaningful to you?

Well, a tortilla can be the, I would say, the most meaningful, the symbol of the Mexican cuisine, it’s the heart of the Mexican cuisine, the soul ... the most recognizable element of the Mexican cuisine. It’s part of our heritage and the great part about it is that there are hundreds of different shapes in every region or states or villages. They have their own way to celebrate the bounty of corn with many names, types of corn and so on. And for me, it’s not any different. In the remote village where I grew up with my grandma, if we have corn, life is beautiful. It’s that simple; because you spend all your heart and soul to make these wonderful tortillas. Once you have that, you have the most meaningful component on the table. Everything else is secondary.

You said there are no shortcuts allowed in making a beautiful tortilla. Tell me a little bite more about that.

Well, I mean, I just knew it that way. Of course making a dozen of tortillas and making tortillas for a restaurant is very different, but we did it the only way we know how to do it, and that is each one made by hand. That’s what we do and we use different types of corn and it’s wonderful.

Do you feel making tortillas the traditional way is becoming more rare?

Maybe tortillas the way we make them; it’s more organic, it’s not made with a machine, it’s more artisanal. Every tortilla has something to say about it. It’s just not using a machine with a low quality masa or low quality corn. It’s just made so delicate, so individual. It’s made with a lot of love. It’s very meaningful. The same way we make our own chocolate. It means a lot in many ways.

What are the qualities of a good tortilla?

The good qualities start with the corn. We have to have organic corn and different types of corn, you know black corn from Guerrero, blue corn from Oaxaca, and yellow corn from Puebla, and red corn from Tlaxcala. All these varieties of corn are what make tortillas so unique. Every corn has a different flavor.

In terms of texture, are there things you should look for in a tortilla?

There are different names for that. For example, we make chatos. It’s a type of corn where it’s right in the middle between fresh corn and dry corn. When it’s starting to get hard, right in between. We have that and we make some shapes of tortilla when the corn is young. We make memelas. Memelas are a type of tortilla that is thick, with a more coarse masa so you have particles of masa there. They are very distinctive. Normally memelas are used for almuerzo. In the time I was growing up, to be able to get a smooth masa, it takes many repetitions on the metate to make the masa very fine. While people are working on the fields, they need to have almuerzo by noon so sometimes we make memelas and because the masa is more coarse it takes less time.

What about flour tortillas?

Inside of the heart of Mexico in Oaxaca, you’ll see whole wheat tortillas, for example, and of course in the north of Mexico, they make flour tortillas. They’re wonderful. It’s part of our cuisine also. They put vegetable lard on it and they’re out of this world. They’re almost like crepes.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy a tortilla?

One of the most symbolic for me is chilaquiles, you fry the tortilla and then you put a little sauce and then queso and crema. Tamal Azteca is another way; you dip the tortilla in this wonderful sauce and then you layer it and you bake it, and you have a savory casserole. Totopos, of course, throw the tortilla on the comal and then you break it. In Veracruz, you have cacalas, it’s a small tortilla that is toasted on the comal so it’s a little bit burned. Then the wonderful tortillas of Yucatan, they are small, I would say about six inches in diameter. Many of those are other ways to enjoy it.