Belize is a dot on the map, located in the narrow strip connecting the two Americas. The tiny country shares a border with Mexico, and those who have heard about Belize, know it mostly for the deep blue sea, as well as the Great Blue Hole, a large underwater sinkhole off its coast. Incidentally, with a drop of over 400 feet, it’s also the largest sea hole in the world.
But there is more to Belize. Seldom do people know it for the various delicacies. From tamales to chicken tacos, the country is home to some delicious corn-based specialties that go well with cocktails made with Caribbean rum.
But what catches attention here are the corn tortillas and masa (which means dough in Spanish). So popular are the tortillas that the local populace eats it with anything. Even with dumplings, as the Chinese living in Belize are known to do. Fuelled by such demand, masa is prepared in large quantities in little factories that are located across the country.
Factors & factories
Belize is divided into five districts and each of them has its share of corn tortilla factories. But, closer to the north in Corozal and Orange Walk, you will find more tortilla factories because of the influence of the product from the neighbouring country of Mexico. Factory workers will have you know that unlike eating them, the making is tedious.
Most factories start operations on a daily basis at 4 am! As I walked into Tortilleria Chico’s (located on a busy highway in Corozal), the fragrant smell of freshly ground corn was overpowering. It was like being trapped in a giant can of Green Giant corn, easily the most popular can of corn in any neighbourhood supermarket in India or abroad.
Tortilleria Chico’s is believed to have gotten its name from the founder Munda Remunda Medina (fondly known as Ms Medina by the local folk). The tale that most people like to narrate is that she had a little (‘chico’ in Spanish) boy whom she brought up. Medina is said to have named this factory after him in 1981. She and her husband resided in the wooden bedroom that had an attached kitchen and a bathroom above the tortilla factory, which has been left undisturbed after Medina’s death. It’ s believed that like this boy, Medina looked after many children.
While Medina and her husband never had children, she was extremely fond of kids. When her brother’s daughter was little, she asked if she could look after her niece but was denied the opportunity as her folks were extremely fond of their daughter.
When Medina got old and needed somebody to take care of her, it was this niece who moved in to help and manage the factory. Maria Cocoon, the niece, trained under Medina at the factory and thus became its inheritor.
The matriarch of the family, 64-year-old Cocoon, once took care of seven children — five of her own, a grandchild and a friend of her oldest child’s kid, along with the factory. Today, she doesn’t visit the factory at all. Her three sons, Anjef, Rohel and Ademir, along with his wife Delisa, manage the factory’s operations.
Delisa’s maternal family makes bread in Orange Walk. Before marriage, she would eat bread but now eats only corn tortilla.
Along with the family members, there are 16 workers at Tortilleria Chico’s, working six days a week for roughly eight hours a day.
All through my chat with the 26-year-old Delisa, the smell of corn seeped through the planks of the wooden house and its wooden furniture. Raw corn bought from suppliers by the pound is first cleaned and cured. It is cooked with a few extra secret ingredients and made into masa. The masa is then passed through the grinder and rolled into tortillas in a machine.
On a good week, the factory prepares about 1,000 kilos of corn tortillas. Another popular corn tortilla is the maseca tortilla, which is very much like the tortilla available in Mexico. The only factory in the Corozal district of Belize that sells maseca tortillas is Ronny’s Tortilla Factory, located in a small by-lane. Named after the founder of the factory, Ronny started this business eight years ago. Like every other corn tortilla factory in Belize, even this factory starts production at 4 am. “Workers don’t continue working at a factory for long because it’s a demanding job, in the sense that it involves attending to a lot of machinery,” says Ronny.
Flattened to perfection
In a 28ft-by-15ft-matchbox-looking, rectangular-shaped space, Ronny has two machines producing the tortillas. The machine, working on pressure and gas, first mixes the masa and then doles out the tortillas. This machine, as opposed to a round one that he used for the first couple of years, is more economical as it uses lesser electricity, is more productive and less noisy. On his first sale, eight years ago, Ronny sold only three bags of maseca tortillas. Today, Ronny plans on opening tortilla factories in all districts of Belize.
One pound of masa gives about four kilos of tortillas. Since the last four years, the price of the tortilla and masa has remained the same — $1.40 for the former and 75 c for the latter (in Belize Dollars). Still, the factories continue to dole out the masa and tortillas.
Chicken tacos, tamales are popular as breakfast dishes — Belizean idli-dosa. Tourists traverse the country by enjoying its chicken and veg tacos and other delicacies. Little do they know that this is the mainstay for people like Ronny and the Cocoon family.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Belize, be ready for a corn feast.