Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric
May 4, 2016 Arts & Culture

The Ancient Chemistry Inside Your Taco

Dive into the world of nixtamalization, a chemical process that allowed the Mesoamerican empires to thrive and tacos to taste good.

Old illustration of a woman making tortillas with tools and handwritten notes.

When you bite into a taco, quesadilla, or anything else involving a traditionally made corn tortilla, your taste buds get to experience the results of an ancient chemical process called nixtamalization. The technique dates to around 1500 BCE and involves cooking corn kernels with an alkaline substance, like lime or wood ash, which makes the dough softer, tastier, and much more nutritious.

Only in the 20th century did scientists figure out the secret of nixtamalization—the process releases niacin, one of the essential B vitamins. Our guest, archaeologist, and nixtamalization expert Rachel Briggs, says that the historical chemical process transformed corn from a regular food into a viable dietary staple, one that cultures around the world continue to rely on for many of their calories. Without nixtamalization Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and the Aztec would not have survived, let alone flourished.

Benjamin Miller and Christina Martinez are the only chefs in Philadelphia making their tortillas from scratch. Our associate producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, visited the couple at their traditional Mexican restaurant in South Philadelphia to find out why they’re so dedicated to handmade tortillas—and to see the nixtamalization process in action. 

And check out this video we made!


Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Rachel Briggs
Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez


Music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Special thanks to Benjamin MillerChristina MartinezTom Culton, The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center, and Joel Tannenbaum’s food history class at Community College of Philadelphia.

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