The Levantine Connection to the Southwest’s Flour Tortilla
by Gary Paul Nabhan
While at a Palestinian café in Ramallah on the West Bank recently, I was surprised to find the waitress was bringing me a flour tortilla much like the pale, medium thin ones used for burritos throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Chihuahua and Sonora.
“Did I order these?” I asked my Palestinian hostess. “I thought I ordered a purslane salad with some saj flatbread on the side.”
“To the right of you is your fatoosh salad, as you ordered,” she smiled. “And to the left of you is not a Mexican tortilla, but our Palestinian saj. It is what your Lebanese kin probably call markouk or podplomyk. We make it on a little griddle shaped out of metal or clay like a dome. We call the griddle a saj too…”
She drew me a little picture on a napkin of a convex griddle about two feet in diameter that looked in every detail like a comal.
Why hadn’t I ever guessed that the humble flour tortilla might have antecedents in the Middle East?
Well, first off, there are lots of kinds of flatbreads all around the world and they need not share the same historic area of origin. As a matter of fact, most Middle Eastern flatbreads don’t look much like tortillas at all. I’ve traveled in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. In all those places, the common fare looks more like Greek pita or Lebanese khubz than a Southwestern tortilla. “Wraps” (a word I hate) come in all shapes, sizes, colors and textures, and very few are identical to saj or the Sonoran tortilla.
Second, the Umayyad Arabs did indeed occupy southern Spain for at least hundred years (from 755 to 1492), but does that necessarily mean that the Arab descendants from Andalusia brought their recipes directly to New Mexico or Sonora?
Hold your horses. To begin, there were people from the Levant in Andalucia well before the Umayyad transferred its capitol from Damascus to Cordoba in 755 CE. Phoenician sailors and merchants from present-day Palestine and Lebanon founded their colony of Gadir (now Cadiz) in 770 BCE, and within a century, had at least a dozen other colonies in the harbors of present-day Spain and Portugal. Therefore, Palestinian and Lebanese culinary influences permeated southern Spain for nearly fourteen hundred years before Ferdanand and Isabel sent all Moslems and Jews packing in 1492. They more or less reshaped Spanish cuisine by culinary technique, ingredient and presentation. While we cannot be sure what the term “torta” or “tortilla” meant 1400 years ago, it is entirely likely that those served in Cadiz, Malaga, Granada and Cordoba during the Islamic era were more like Palestinian saj than the Spanish tortas of today.
Well, so the saj may have made it to Spain. So what? That does not mean that it made it to New Mexico or Sonora….
No it doesn’t. But dozens of other Arabic foods of the Levant did, as did the technologies and crop varieties associated with them. The so-called “White Sonora” soft bread wheat variety introduced to Sonora by 1630 and Arizona by 1690 is of the same lineage as many Middle East heirloom wheats used for flatbreads. It may have come on its own, in the rucksack of a Jesuit explorer, but more likely it came with the knowledge to make comals and tortillas. Thousands of Crypto-Moslems escaped to the far hinterlands of Mexico and New Mexico after the Spanish Inquisition began, and probably outnumbered Crypto-Jewish refugees to New Mexico. There they continued to pass down Arabic culinary skills and recipes, such as those for capirotada, pan de semita and tiswin, all derived from the Levant. So why not the tortilla too?
All things considered, we’ll never know for sure, since the intangible cultural heritage that could link saj with the tortilla is not as easy to trace as a water-wheel, a saddle or an acequia.
But when I eat a fresh-tortilla of White Sonora wheat taken right off the comal, I feel like I am coming home. I can taste some deep history in every bite.
Gary Nabhan is a Lebanese-American author descended from the Banu Nebhani (as is Santa Fe writer Canille Flores!) His book Arab/American explores these cross-cultural connections, as does his next book from the University of Texas Press, Desert Terroir.