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Roaring Tortillas

April 28, 1999|CHARLES PERRY CHARLES PERRY

Everybody wonders why a tortilla is a thin flatbread in Mexico and a sort of omelet, usually consisting of sliced potatoes bound with eggs, in Spain. The answer is absurdly simple: They're both little tortas, little cakes. One of them just happens to be, as the expression goes, flourless.

This connection doesn't naturally occur to us, because we tend to think of a cake (or a torte, for that matter) as a rather grand pastry, perhaps several layers thick. On the other hand, we don't have any problem with the fact that a pancake is a cake. The ancient Roman torta was a round flatbread that looked much more like a pancake than a devil's food cake.

Needless to say, the Aztecs didn't call tortillas by a Spanish name. Their word was tlaxcalli. (By the way, if you've ever wondered why so many Aztec words begin with "tla-," it's because "tla" is the pronoun "it" or "that which"; "tlaxcalli" means "that which one bakes.")

And the correct name for a tortilla chip is not "nacho" but "totopo," which comes from the Aztec "tlaxcaltotopochtli" (you can see why they shortened it). This jawbreaker of a name consists of the word for tortillas plus the word for thunder and means more or less "tortillas that are noisy to chew."

The Aztecs made enchiladas and tacos with their tortillas, but not quesadillas, because they had no cheese. And needless to say, they had no nacho cheese or even totopo cheese.

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