Oaxaqueño Street Food: Tlayuda (Baked Flatbread)

Sofia Salazar-Rubio | 01.29.2014

In gastronomy’s love affair with Oaxacan cuisine, mole gets all the glory.  But on the streets of Oaxaca, the humble tlayuda reigns supreme. This simple street food, or antojito (literally meaning “little craving”), featuring an oversized corn tortilla, refried black beans and local string cheese, is quintessentially Oaxacan.

Tlayuda refers to both the dish itself and the characteristic dinner plate-sized tortilla. Denser and chewier than the soft blandas that are integral to nearly every Oaxacan meal, tlayudas are baked on a comal, a pre-Columbian cast iron griddle. Once lightly browned, the tlayuda is smothered with asiento (rendered lard) and refried black beans, then sprinkled with quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese).  Served open face (yielding the gringo title “Mexican Pizza”) or folded over, the dish is finished with any variety of toppings: salsa, guacamole (avocados are indigenous to the neighboring state of Puebla), and various meats. The regional delicacy chapulines (fried grasshoppers) makes for a version that is especially oaxaqueño.

This incredible struggle for food sovereignty continues to be expressed and celebrated through the preservation of Oaxaca’s food culture, sustained even through the simple tradition of sharing a meal, a recipe and a story.

The tlayuda’s essential components—corn tortilla, refried beans and quesillo—are a microcosm of Oaxacan cuisine.  The tortilla base reflects the centrality of corn to Mexican cuisine in general, but Oaxacan food in particular as the region that gave birth to maize. Combined with black beans, the dish alludes to the traditional farming milpas, small, diversified plots where beans are grown symbiotically with corn (the corn serves as a trellis for the legumes, which in turn fix nitrogen in the soil). Quesillo (also known as queso Oaxaca) is the local spin on mozzarella and is made using traditional techniques that involve stretching the cheese into long ribbons and rolling it up like a ball of yarn.

Despite its seeming simplicity, tlayudas are deceptively difficult to make and have proven to be a vexing task for many chefs. An authentic tortilla is so important to the dish that some restaurants have chosen to import the ingredient rather than attempt a pale imitation in house. This difficulty is, in part, due to the singular character of Oaxacan maize. By comparison, U.S. corn has been bred to be sweet and tender by reducing the amount of starch—the quality of maize that is most important to many traditional Oaxacan dishes. In her book The Food and Life of Oaxaca, Mexican–American chef Zarela Martinez laments, “U.S. sweet corn is a disaster when applied to dishes that use Oaxacan fresh corn.” Consequently, the packaged masa harina widely available in the states is a poor substitute for the Oaxacan specialty.

The centrality of local maize to the tlayuda’s culinary integrity speaks to the importance of resisting the encroachments of globalization. The purity of Oaxacan maize—which is necessary for the tlayuda’s exceptional flavor and texture—is besieged by the proliferation of genetically modified corn. On a grander scale, an entire culture hangs in the balance as market forces threaten to dismantle long-protected traditions—there is a saying in Mexico, “Sin maíz, no hay paíz.” Without corn, there is no country. Mexicans are increasingly standing up to these destructive global forces as the food sovereignty movement gains momentum. Last October, a Mexican federal judge suspended the cultivation of GM corn in Mexico, which is no minor victory for Mexican food sovereignty. This incredible struggle for food sovereignty continues to be expressed and celebrated through the preservation of Oaxaca’s food culture, sustained even through the simple tradition of sharing a meal, a recipe and a story.

Vegetarian Tlayuda (Oaxacan Baked Flatbread)Tlayuda (large)
Adapted from Diner’s Journal
Yields 2 tlayuda, about 4 to 8 servings

If you’d like to use homemade tortillas, make sure to use the highest quality masa you can find—your local tortillaria is a good place to start.

Ingredients
2 cups cooked or canned black beans, drained, liquid reserved
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 small onion, minced
1 teaspoon mild chili powder, like New Mexico or ancho, or to taste
1 tablespoon cumin, or to taste
2 large (12-inch) tortillas, preferably corn
1 cup chopped quesillo (Mexican string cheese) or mozzarella; or use a crumbly cheese like queso fresco, slighty dried goat cheese or feta
1 cup chopped cabbage or lettuce

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.  If using dried beans, add salt, pepper, garlic, onion, chili powder and cumin the last few minutes of cooking.  Drain and reserve liquid.  Carefully place mixture in a blender or food processor with enough bean liquid to allow the machine ot do its work and roughly purée, leaving the mixture a bit chunky.  If using canned beans, add seasonings and warm mixture gently in a saucepan, stirring, just to take the edge off the garlic and onion.  Then roughly purée.
  2. Place 1 tortilla on a pizza peel or baking sheet and spread half the bean mixture on it and half the meat.  Bake (on pizza stone, if you have one) for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with half the cabbage or lettuce.  Bake another 5 minutes or so, until topping is hot and tortilla is crisp on edges.  Serve, cut into wedges, then repeat with other tortilla.

Notes:

  • There really are no rules about what kinds of toppings you can use, but since the cooking time is short, make ingredients are cut small and meats are pre-cooked.
  •  This video, in which Mexican YouTube celebrity home cook Chucheman Hernandez gets tlayuda-making lesson from a local purveyor, may help you bone up on your technique.