La torta and other disputes

Once I thought I’d gotten a hang for a local cuisine and the language attributed to it– specifying that by sin carne I not only mean without beef, but also… um…. Do you have anything without chicken, fish, pork, and insects, too? Oh yea, and guinea pig. Sorry! THEN, my adoptive Mexican mom asks me if I’d like a torta for dinner when I get home from work at 10 p.m. No thanks, I tell her. I think I’ll make myself a sandwich– something savory.

In Colombia, this is a torta: tres leches, torta negra, or basically any two-tiered cake filled with jam and sometimes coated in bold, glossy frostings. Not, of course, to be confused with a tarta. When sweet and dessert-like, a tarta can also be a cake– a fruit tart, more often. In Spain, the tarta is the consistency of breakfast bread, and sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. But in Argentina, a tarta is a quiche: a savory, eggy crusted pie, often filled with jamón, spinach, or cheese and eaten for merienda alongside a piping-hot cafe cortado. Swap your a’s and o’s, border hop a bit, and you’ve got yourself an entirely different commodity.

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Eloisa gave me a strange look and held up a piece of bread. In Mexico, a torta is a sandwich, she explained. You can order one out or make it at home, and it’s always served on a crusty, thin white bread produced exactly for torta-building purposes, or on a bolillo, a short, fat baguette. It’s easy to request a torta de quesillo, skipping out on the meat and going for the stringy cheese instead.

No matter your type of torta, it nearly always includes lettuce, tomato, and avocado, with a layer of frijoles spread onto one piece of the bread, and mayonnaise slathered onto the opposite. Mayonnaise, it has been said, is Mexican butter. It’s everywhere, and it’s never refrigerated. (It’s ok! We’re just strengthening our immune systems!) And the magic thing about black beans on a sandwich is that the beans and bread work together to form a complete protein. As I’m learning in Tehuacán, beans can (and do) pair with everything.

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The above made-to-order torta costs only 12 pesos (about 70 cents) at an unnamed cafe on calle 3 oriente in Tehuacán. In many city restaurants, they’ll run anywhere from 10 to 25 pesos. (The cheaper ones tend to be premade, set out in a glass box.) Served on a tiny dish and set on Tehuacán’s favorite checkered table cloth, a simple lunch takes on the green-white-red combination of the nation’s flag in the most charming way. It’s simple food, really: vegetables, cheese, beans, and bread. When I want to duck out of the sun and grab a quick bite, a torta is exactly the satisfying, crisp sandwich that won’t break the bank (now that I know what’s what).

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