ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Labor Day is the perfect time to wrap up our summer series, The Global Grill. If you haven't finalized your cookout menu, here's an idea from central Mexico, a small doughy treat called a tlacoyo. It can be found at street corner grills and high-end restaurants alike. NPR's Carrie Kahn is going to tell us about the very long history of the tlacoyo.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: If I wanted to try the best tlacoyo in Mexico, I was told to head to Xochimilco, the sprawling suburb in southern Mexico City.
JUANA PINA GONZALES: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: Juana Pina Gonzales has been selling tlacoyos here for 25 years. She starts cooking them at 4:00 in the morning. She uses only blue corn masa - that's the dough used to make a tortilla. And she stuffs it with all kinds of fillings, smashed pinto or fava beans, potato puree, mushrooms or, my favorite, a light cheese similar to ricotta stuffing.
She shapes the tlacoyo into a small oval with pointed ends. They look like little torpedoes. And then she fries them in light oil on a comal, a smooth round griddle, and then brings them to the market still warm in big wicker baskets.
GONZALES: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: She says it takes her about four hours to sell the 40 or 50 dozen she's made. While Pina's tlacoyos are warm, I really wanted one hot off the grill. So I headed to the market's open food court. A roving guitarist serenades customers sitting on rickety benches around a dozen small food stalls, each equipped with a large grill teaming with all types of Mexicanantojitos, or snack food. There's quesadillas, tacos and of course, hot steamy tlacoyos.
Isabel Salazar Cabrera says her tlacoyos are the best and, of course, the original.
ISABEL SALAZAR CABRERA: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: She says her mom was the first to ever sell tlacoyos in Xochimilo. They're the best because of the way she cooks the bean filling.
CABRERA: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: Although she says she can't share the recipe, it's a family secret. She slides a hot fried tlacoyo on a plastic plate and generously tops it with a big spoonful of grilled nopales, sliced cactus. She puts chopped onions, cilantro, crumbled fresh cheese and spicy green salsa all on top. Salazar says tlacoyos have been the favorite food here for generations.
CABRERA: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: Her mom told her stories about making the tlacoyos for the farmers who worked the fields or Chinampas of Xochimilco. Those are the floating gardens in the freshwater canals that have made this southern stretch of the Mexico City valley so famous. But Edmundo Escamilla Solis, a historian at the Culinary School of Mexico, says tlacoyos date back even farther. He's seen the small corn masa treats mentioned in the writings of the conquistadors of Mexico. We're talking 16th century.
EDMUNDO ESCAMILLA SOLIS: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: He says Hernan Cortes and other Spanish chroniclers wrote about Mexico's indigenous outdoor markets and the stuffed corn masa breads sold in small food shacks. He says back in those days, tlacoyos were not only healthy, pre-Hispanic street vendors never used oil to grill them like now, but he says they were also ideal to eat in a hurry or take on long trips.
SOLIS: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: Escamilla laughs. He says tlacoyos are the first fast food of the Americas. While pre-conquest Mexicans may have eaten their tlacoyos in a hurry, chef Martha Ortiz prepares a more leisurely tlacoyo experience at her high-end restaurant in Mexico City's swanky Polanco district.
MARTHA ORTIZ: We are going to make it beautiful because we're going to use a small Mexican fish, sardina, a fresh one, and we're going to make a beautiful salad.
KAHN: Topped with rich cheese and cilantro, Ortiz says she likes to dress up and surprise her clientele with the food of the streets.
ORTIZ: I love Mexican street food. I love Mexican food. For me, it's a passion; it's a way of living.
KAHN: The tlacoyo, a food that has endured centuries, lives on and is enjoyed on both fine china and plastic plates throughout Mexico. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.