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Reinventing the Tortilla

By: Haley Kirk

My friends from the states that I work with like to tell me that I’m “immersed”. I’m the most Guatemalan gringa that they know. It would come as no surprise then, that I love tortillas. Many people who come to visit Guatemala get bored with the taste quickly or decide to turn down the extra carbohydrates. I, on the other hand, love them in all shapes and sizes, whether they are hand formed or made with a press, whether they are made from white, yellow, or blue corn, and whether they are soft and doughy or crispy like a tostada. I do not discriminate against tortillas.

You can imagine my delight when Semilla Nueva decided to run a tortillas verdes or green tortillas competition in our communities. In September and October, Jennifer Brito, our team’s nutrition specialist, and I will be developing recipes, running workshops, and hosting community competitions focused around nutritionally-improved tortillas. The tortillas will incorporate local herbs, such as chipilín and hierba mora, as well as plants we are promoting at Semilla Nueva, like chaya and pigeonpea.

Why did we want to reinvent the tortilla? In Guatemala it is said that a meal isn’t a meal, if there aren’t tortillas. Based on surveys in our communities, a typical farming family in the coast consumes around 2,500 pounds of corn a year. Unfortunately, contrary to the beliefs of my Midwestern compatriots, corn is NOT a vegetable, it is a grain that is lacking many of the proteins and vitamins necessary for human development. Guatemala is the 4th most malnourished country in the world, largely due to an undiversified diet.

Besides the cultural ties to the tortilla, there is also the fact that for many rural families tortillas are sometimes the only food that there is in the household. For these reasons we were able to see the potential behind tweaking tortillas slightly. If we can get women to incorporate nutritious ingredients in tortillas, tortillas go from being a nutrient-empty, stomach filler to a vessel for protein and the many micronutrients lacking in the typical Guatemalan diet.

Tortilla made with hierba mora.

Tortilla made with hierba mora.

We researched ingredients to promote, how to incorporate them, and the nutritional benefits they had. We looked into the new miracle plant that’s becoming a star in the development world: moringa. It is a tree with wonderful properties; the leaves are packed with all sorts of vitamins, protein, essential amino acids, and iron. One study shows malnourished children who ate 10g of moringa were able to double their weight and cut rates of diarrhea compared with those who did not consume moringa. We even found various moringa trees in the communities where we work.

The stars aligned and we were ready to start pushing moringa as a new super food in our communities. Then Jennifer and I tried using it when we made our first test tortillas. After drying about 50 branches we had enough moringa to fill a plastic grocery bag. Jennifer and I crushed the leaves with our hands, unable to get as fine of a powder as we wanted. The powder from the leaves was pungent, it smelled like grass clippings or very strong green tea, and left our palms stained green.

I was still hopeful. I was excited to see a beautifully green, nutritious tortilla. We made one with heaping spoonfuls of moringa powder to pack as many vitamins as possible into the tortilla. I pulled it off the stove and tore it in half, handing a piece to Jennifer. The green came out darker than expected and uneven. Instead of a pale green tortilla it looked more like someone had accidently spilled something into the corn dough.

I bit into my piece and watched as Jennifer reluctantly smelled the tortilla and tasted it. For me it wasn’t awful, but as I watched Jennifer’s face scrunch up in disgust I could tell we had failed. We tried making two more, each with less powder, and although the taste was less bitter I couldn’t help but think that if Jen wasn’t willing to eat it, there was no way we were going to get kids to eat it.

Our other tests with different herbs proved more successful – better color, texture, and taste, and the ingredients were easier to incorporate. Instead of having to find a moringa tree, cut the branches down, dry the leaves, and make a powder, chaya, hierba mora, and chipilín simply had to be cut from plants in the backyard, boiled, and incorporated in the corn dough at the mill. Women are also more familiar with these ingredients, as they’re frequently used in traditional recipes. Many women in the communities don’t know what moringa is, if it is edible, or how it can be prepared.

First green tortillas workshop with the women of Aztlán and Monte Cristo.

First green tortillas workshop with the women of Aztlán and Monte Cristo.

Comparatively, the amount of chaya, chipilín, and hierba mora that could be incorporated into a tortilla provided more protein than moringa. Hierba mora tortillas proved to be high in iron; in fact, a woman would only need to consume 9 tortillas a day (most consume around 12 daily) to get the recommended intake, important for communities where anemia is a common problem. The amount of chaya, chipilin, and hierba mora that can be incorporated in tortillas also provide higher amounts of Vitamin A and C, both important for the immune system.

We have seen through evaluations in our communities how difficult it is to change people’s eating habits. After two years of promoting pigeonpea and chaya and training women to prepare it, only about 40% of our families consume them on a weekly basis. Based on that information, and the bad taste moringa left in Jen’s mouth, it seemed as though it would be a poor investment of time and energy to try and promote another new food that people are unfamiliar with.

NGOs often fall into the trap of promoting “silver bullet” technologies without assessing local realities. In the field, high expectations for an innovation can come to crash with contextual reasons that prevent its implementation. Which is why our strategy of: experiment, analyze, and share proves so important. It is only recently that the development world has begun to put emphasis on the monitoring and evaluation of projects and measuring the actual impact of investments. As we move forward it is important to constantly reassess the acceptance and the effect of the innovations we promote. This will often mean admitting failures, scrapping an idea, and returning to the drawing board. However, as long as we are learning in the process our efforts are not in vain.

So, adiós moringa. I didn’t think it was possible, but I’ve found a tortilla that I didn’t love. Although moringa is receiving a lot of attention from various international NGOs and presents numerous benefits, we decided that it would be best to abandon it for this project. Instead we will focus on incorporating local plants that provide their own host of nutritional benefits.

Tortillas made with moringa.

Tortillas made with moringa.

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