Before we began our journey in 2013, we focused very much on what our budget would be. It was paramount to the whole trip, actually. Too much cash-flow out meant we return sooner than we wanted to. The budget is a biggie, got it? Somehow I knew eating would not be a problem with limited funds, and it wasn’t.
What I did not anticipate was how tough it would be to find variety on a budget. I am speaking of the over-abundance of the corn tortilla South of the border, and how it is a base for almost every meal we could afford. Within a month or so I was starting to sour on the idea of having to consume these with each meal. Perhaps it was a silly little form of culture shock, but damn, what I was eating suddenly started eating me. That last bit sounds like an awful nightmare, huh?
Lines Are Drawn
This gets a bit complex in Mexico, for there seems to be an imaginary line – depending on which side you are on – that sees you eating either a wheat tortilla (Northern Mexico), or a corn tortilla (Southern Mexico) with each meal. That northern line gives way to the southern line too quickly. Before you know it you are unofficially in a new land of corn. Wheat tortillas are a huge minority in Mexico, I must confess.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the forces south of that wheat / corn line did not swell to include a few other countries South of Mexico. There was no reset button to hit as you crossed into Guatemala; no new foods to look forward to for the budget minded. Them tortillas de maiz were sticking around…like a head cold. When I found myself entrenched in the corn tortilla zone, I started loathing the flat yellow things. My dilemma followed me beyond Guatemala, even.
Great pride is taken in El Salvador when it comes to the papusa, which is considered to be a national dish. Now, to a gringo like me it seems the papusa is the same exact thing as a gordita in Mexico. It is a corn flour fritter-type thing sliced through and stuffed with meat / cheese / beans and onions, then pan-fried. Both were very tasty and wholesome, but the sighs and grumbles kept coming from me. There are just too many ways to create a meal with a corn tortilla in my opinion, and the market is cornered down here.
Honduras, much to my relief, somehow looked to the flour tortilla for its national dish, the baleada, which I welcomed with open arms. This is a large flour tortilla smeared with refried beans and drizzled with a type of cream, then folded over. In Mexico, the act of folding over a wheat tortilla stuffed with fillings could be called a quesadilla. Bring that same quesadilla to Honduras and that would be called a baleada. Do you see where I am going? In Nicaragua, the use of corn and wheat tortillas started to thin out quite a bit and by the time we hit Panama they were non-existent.
As we headed North, I became concerned as we got closer to Mexico. Again, our budget meant we would be mostly eating things contained within a corn tortilla. Do an online search of tlacoyos, salbutes, papadzules, panuchos, or huaraches and you will be looking at the same thing; corn tortillas topped or filled with basically similar ingredients. I realize that these may be regional variations and that is fine. It just gets a bit tired on a budget. I am not complaining, because it all tasted good. it just got a little tedious on our budget.
A large part of what we were able to afford were known as antojitos, and I believe that these are just quick little meals taken outside of the home, like a snack. Antojitos translates to “little whims”, so imagine how overworked that would be after a year.
On the very rare occasion where we went to a proper restaurant for a sit down meal consisting of things other than antojitos, corn tortillas were served as a side, stacked 10 high and wrapped in a cloth to keep them warm and pliable. No matter how tired I was of the things, I always felt compelled to eat them anyway. When they were all finished, more were promptly brought to your table. I kept on eating them too, out of a feeling of obligation!
I do not mean to sound like I am complaining, for this is meant to be a post shedding light on how limited we were with our food budget and how abundant the use of corn tortillas are in a very large swath of Mexico and Central America. Luckily, we did find the odd bit of variety here and there and when we did, we savored each bite.
In Mexico City, where we spent weeks, we came across whole roasted chicken (rosti-pollo) that we devoured along with bread rolls, just down the street from our hotel. Also in Mexico City, a lengthy Metro ride brought us to a street cart serving wonderful, steamy bowls of birria stew.
Panama City has some of the best ceviche, affordable even to us Drifters. In Livingston, Guatemala, we threw that food budget out the window and splurged on tapado soup that became one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. We also spent a bit more than we should have on the coast of several countries just for seafood, which is still dirt cheap compared to seafood in the States. Most of the dishes I just mentioned also came with corn tortillas, which I ate anyway.