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What Is a Torta?
A torta is a Mexican sandwich served on a soft roll and filled with meat, sauce, and various toppings such as crema, avocado, salsa, and iceberg lettuce. Tortas can be filled with almost anything, but some of the most famous regional versions include Guadalajara's torta ahogada and Mexico City's pambazo and torta de tamal.
Mexican tortas are defined by two types of bread: bolillos and teleras.
- Bolillos are torpedo-shaped rolls similar to a soft baguette. Tortas made on bolillo rolls are sometimes called lonches. Sourdough bolillos are known as bilotes, and they can be sweet or savory.
- Teleras are flatter, softer, and rounder than bolillos, and they usually have two score marks down the center.
A Brief History of the Torta
Today, tortas are almost as integral to Mexican street food as tacos. But unlike tacos, which the Aztecs made with tortillas ground from native maíz, tortas are a relatively new emergence, requiring the use of wheat bread.
The history of the torta begins with the arrival of wheat in Mexico. The first plantings of wheat are often attributed to Juan Garrido, an African conquistador who fought alongside Hernán Cortés in the siege of Tenochtitlan in 1521, then settled in Mexico City. Bread was a staple food for Spanish conquistadors. When Native Mexicans refused to give up their corn for Spanish wheat, the Spanish forced them to work on their wheat haciendas. By the early seventeenth century, there were 13 bakeries in Mexico City. It is possible that a precursor to the torta was developed around this time.
Another potential history of the torta is rooted in the argument that the bolillo roll's baguette-like shape is a sign of French influence. The French invaded Puebla in the mid-nineteenth century and were defeated in 1867, but their influence over Mexican cuisine continued decades after their defeat due, in large part, to president Porfirio Díaz’s obsession with French food. It was under Díaz's rule that many of Mexico's pan dulce pastries were created, and it's possible that the bolillo comes from this time as well. When exactly the torta came to be is still a mystery, but by the mid-twentieth century, the sandwich was firmly cemented in Mexican food and culture.
5 Iconic Torta Types
Like tacos, tortas are typically identified by their fillings: torta de lomo (pork loin), torta de chorizo, torta de pavo (turkey), torta de pierna (pork leg), torta de carnitas, and so on. Some tortas are so well-known that they are associated with a particular city or region. A few of the best-known tortas are:
- Torta ahogada: This style of torta from Guadalajara, Jalisco, features carnitas served on birote salado (a sourdough roll with a crunchy, salted crust) spread with refried beans. The torta is “drowned” in a spicy chile de árbol and tomato sauce and topped with crunchy raw onion.
- Torta Cubana: Despite its name, the torta Cubana has its origins in Mexico City. It's famous for including almost every filling—hot dog, ham, pierna (marinated, uncured pig leg), head cheese, scrambled or fried egg, chorizo, and chicken or beef milanesa—all piled into one huge sandwich.
- Torta de milanesa: A torta de milanesa features a pounded, breaded, and fried cutlet, usually pork but sometimes beef or chicken. Unlike a torta ahogada or torta Cubana, the torta de milanesa is simple and portable, with a nice crunch from the crispy meat.
- Torta de tamal: The torta de tamal, also known as guajolota, is a sandwich whose filling is another carb-based snack: the tamal. Usually sold by tamales vendors, these no-frills tortas are a popular breakfast and lunch option. If a griddle is available, the tamal may be fried until crispy before it’s added to the bolillo.
- Pambazo: Pambazos are thought to have originated in Toluca, in central Mexico, but they are closely associated with Mexico City. Pambazos are made with telera rolls and stuffed with mashed potatoes and chorizo, then dunked in guajillo chile salsa and fried on a griddle.
6 Common Torta Toppings
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Although tortas are typically defined by the type of meat they contain, you could argue that what sets a torta apart from other sandwiches is the toppings. Popular toppings include:
- Crema: Tortas often include either crema ácida (sour cream) or crema Mexicana. A somewhat nontraditional yet still popular creamy ingredient is mayonnaise.
- Cheese: In Mexico, you're more likely to find your torta stuffed with Mexican cheeses like queso fresco, queso panela, queso Oaxaca, and cotija. In the United States, tortas might be served with jack cheese.
- Avocado: Whether sliced or pounded into guacamole, avocado is one of the most popular torta additions.
- Salsa: Some tortas, like the torta ahogada, are smothered in salsa. Others have just a dollop of salsa. Spicy tortas might include hot sauce made with chipotle, guajillo, jalapeño, or adobo chiles. Pico de gallo (tomato, onion, and cilantro) adds a refreshing flavor and some crunch.
- Raw vegetables: Most tortas feature a leaf of iceberg lettuce. You might also find sliced tomatoes, shredded cabbage, and thinly sliced red onion.
- Beans: Mashed black beans or creamy refried beans provide a hearty base for torta toppings.
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