Liz Alarcón: Michael De La Torre grew up watching his grandmother make delicious flour tortillas in their family kitchen.
Michael De La Torre: I was just like, this is, this is being Mexican. We go to my grandma’s house and she’s heating up tortillas that she made and like, this is the best food in the world.
Liz Alarcón: The taste and smell of fresh torillas defined his childhood, but as he grew up he realized that not everyone felt the same about the flour tortilla.
Michael De La Torre: In many ways it’s seen as an inauthentic and it’s seen as, um, just sort of like a less respected, uh, version of a tortilla. Sometimes people can be snobby about it.
Liz Alarcón: There is often debate as to which tortilla is more Mexican, if flour or corn. The truth is, both! Flour tortillas are more common in the northern part of Mexico where the terain is more suited to growing wheat than corn. Because few people know the origins of the flour tortilla, they’ve gotten a bad rap.
Michael De La Torre: I didn’t really think of it as being an inauthentic thing at all, but then kind of when I moved up north into San Francisco, Oakland, you don’t have as many norteños up here. You have a lot of people from the Yucatan, Guatemala, El Salvador. So corn is king is queen like corn is what rules these lands.
Liz Alarcón: Michael wen’t on to study and work as a teacher, yet somehow, he always kept finding himself coming back to food.
Michael De La Torre: I tried that out, tried some teaching and education and it was, you know, it worked all right. Um, and then my mom was like, why don’t you just go to culinary school? Like you just love food. You’re so good at it. I was like, okay.
Liz Alarcón: He wen’t on to become a chef, and then…
Michael De La Torre: I was having this conundrum where I was like, how do I actually create something new? Like everything has been done. Everything there every there’s a recipe for everything. There is a restaurant for every type of thing. And then, uh,
Liz Alarcón: On a trip to Mexico with some friends he finally found his muse.
Michael De La Torre: I remember just going into the grocery store and seeing, you know, a half a dozen different brands of flour tortillas. But it’s, it’s there’s room for all this variation. Each one of these people are doing something different about it. And it just struck me of like, wow, this is something you would never see in Oakland or Berkeley or, so, all right. There’s plenty of room for me to create a lane here.
Liz Alarcón: So he opened up Xulo, his own flour tortilla pop up in the Bay area to try and bring back the reputation of his beloved flour tortilla
Michael De La Torre: I feel a bit of a calling, um, to, use my experience both like growing up with this, you know, amazing food, but also my experience of like working in lots of kitchens. And so I feel like I’m, I’m situated in a really great place where I have a unique ability and experience to be a disseminator of this, uh, this amazing product and to educate as well. There’s still so much more room for everyone to, to learn and to consume and to, you know, get, get down on the flour tortilla train.
Liz Alarcón: As you can probably tell by now, this episode is going to dig into the authenticity & decolonization of our and how two chefs contemplating both in their kitchens. More after the break
Can you describe for us how an actual flour tortilla, not the one we see on our shelf in the supermarket, is supposed to taste?
Michael De La Torre: Sure. It’s supposed to have a lot more fat than you get in the stuff you get in the store. It definitely has like a weight to it and I think that a lot of store-bought things are just kind of these like airy discs that don’t have soul.
Liz Alarcón: Michael finds a connection to his Mexican roots when he makes flour tortillas. That’s why he feels so strongly about this question of authenticity. Words like “authentic,” “original,” “traditional,” they’ve all been used to describe Latino cuisine. But the issue with this vocabulary is that our food has gone through so many changes throughout our history, to the point that words like “authentic” don’t really mean much at all. Because of this, Michael, like many other Mexican Americans, kept hearing that flour tortillas weren’t as “legitimate,” as corn tortillas.
Michael De La Torre: Authentic to what? Are you authentic to like regional Sonoran Mexican cuisine, right? Yeah. Or are you authentic to that cuisine 150 years ago? Or are you authentic to 2000 years ago?
Liz Alarcón: Wheat was only brought over to Latin America 500 years ago, which is part of the reason why there’s debate as to its authenticity. The flour tortilla is a result of colonization, and therefore by many it’s not seen as really being from Mexico. More movements are spreading, though, encouraging Latinos to return to the ways our ancestors lived before our homelands were colonized. For those of us who are exploring what it means to decolonize ourselves, starting with our diet is a resonable first step. But what does it mean to decolonize our diets? And can we?
Michael De La Torre: It is authentically Mexican because being Mexican is being, a melange of all of these influences. It is being indigenous. It is being colonized. It is being, uh, you know, multiple like religious, like migrations and diasporas that have made Mexico what it is and made Mexican food what it is in many instances. Like you wouldn’t be, the food wouldn’t be where it’s at right now without the Arabs who came over with, you know, their land. There are ways of cooking on a spit and it wouldn’t be what it is without the Lebanese. And it wouldn’t be what it is without like the Jewish and the Germans and, uh, the Spanish of course.
Liz Alarcón: And Michael has a point. That fusion of so many cultures is a part of what makes up our history. And if we’re trying to decolonize our diets, does that mean we’re essentially removing parts of our identity?
Nico Vera: As a Latin X people, we identify strong with the food of, our countries. I grew up with, with traditional Peruvian food.
Liz Alarcón: That’s Nico Vera, a Peruvian chef who has personally and professionally dealt with questions of identity as he interrogates his own diet. Nico fell in love with cooking as a child, became a chef and learned to cook traditional peruvian food, but then his life abrubtly changed
Nico Vera: I had a running accident in mountain trails and, uh, I broke my foot and it, uh, recovery took a really long time. And I tried many things, but nothing worked. I had read a lot about athletes that had success with plant-based diets. And it started, started implementing that change and the results were fantastic almost instantly.
Liz Alarcón: We love that! His diet change also shifted how Nico viewed many of Peru’s prized dishes that made him fall in love with food in the first place. He could no longer eat the foods he grew up with
Nico Vera: What happens when you stop eating that? Do you lose your identity? Who are you? If I, who am I, if I no longer eat ceviche, right? Or lomo saltado? What, what happens?
Liz Alarcón: So as Nico grappled with these questions he started to look deeper into the history of his comfort foods and found that…
Nico Vera: A lot of these ingredients were pre-colonial, uh, like the hot peppers – aji amarillo, aji panca. And so the soul of the dish was still there.
Liz Alarcón: Like many of its Latin American neighbors, Peru was colonized by the Spanish. And its food today is the result, in part, of that colonization and subsequent migration.
Nico Vera: We’re talking about Inca and Pre-Inca, Spanish colonials, african slaves, Italian immigrants, asian, Chinese indentured workers and Japanese indentured workers, right? It’s not that somebody came in and said, Oh, I really want to combine this and that and could come up with something new. It’s more, uh, accidental happenstance.
Liz Alarcón: What does the colonization and decolonization of food mean to you and where do we draw the line between fusion and appropriation and the disappearing of the original culture of food.
Nico Vera: If something is appropriated, it is in essence stolen. A chef from United States that goes to Asia comes back to his restaurant and he says, look, here is an elevated dish from this country in Asia.
Liz Alarcón: Because of colonization, so much of Indigenous, African, and Asian culture has been appropriated. It’s understandable why a return to culinary practices that existed before the theft of ingredients and cooking methods is a conversation more of us are having. And although we’re certainly not grateful for the effects of colonization, we also can’t deny its part in our history as Latinos. So, how do we, at the very least, get to a decolonized mindset around our food?
Nico Vera: I think it’s really important to, to look at the history of it. We’re talking 500 years of stories behind a dish. If you, if you know where something came from, if you know it story, you are looking at the past and that’s really important.
Liz Alarcón: And Michael agrees.
Michael De La Torre: I’m inspired and I inspire other chefs and other people that are borrowing traditions that they don’t belong to, to know the history, to talk about the history, to give credit, to give props, and giving the original grandmothers, cultures, traditions, giving them the due respect that they deserve and not making it about yourself because it’s bigger than that, you know.
Liz Alarcón: So my question for you is, do you think it’s even possible to decolonizeour food?
Michael De La Torre: You know, 100% it’s a struggle. Um, I do think there are ways in which we can have high, a lot of reverence for the ingredients and still be able to put some cheese on your quesadilla if you want to.
Liz Alarcón: And for Nico, it’s not just about reclaiming pre-colonial ingredients. And Nico’s determined to share these methods with other chefs. In one of his cooking class, he asked his students to take part in a Peruvian cooking tradition with before uncovering a pot of panchamanca. If you’re anything like me and like our guests on this episode, food for you is more than nourishment. It’s the ultimate pleasure. It’s how you express love, It’s an experience that moves all of your senses and helps you carry on your culture and learn about new ones. Food is sacred. The sanctity of food, though, has been diluted by colonization, industrialization and our instant gratification culture that makes it harder for us to trace our food back to its source and really honor the ingredients in our favorite dishes. We likely won’t ever be able to fully eat like our ancestors did and return to our roots. But the more we learn about our food’s history, the more we can try.