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What makes a tortilla Mexican?

Tacos of lengua (tongue), pork (pastor) and chorizo

Tacos of lengua (tongue), pork (pastor) and chorizo (sausage) are served at Little Mexico in Westbury. (Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus)

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, Joan Reminick has rounded up eight Long Island Mexican restaurants that serve authentic tacos. But what is an authentic taco?

Mexicans tend to use a more restrained hand than Americans, often filling a tortilla with nothing more than meat, a few slices of onion and some cilantro — you’ll never see beans and rice in a Mexican taco. But more important than the filling is the tortilla itself. The soul of a taco is the soft corn tortilla, made from masa. Masa, in turn, is the soul of Latin American cooking and so, in honor of Cinco de Mayo, here’s a little masa primer:

Masa starts with field corn, the starchy, emphatically non-sweet variety that livestock eats, not the kind humans eat off the cob. The kernels are dried and then soaked in an alkaline solution (often derived from ash or the mineral lime) so that the skins burst and the grain expands. Now you’ve got hominy. Dry it and grind it and you’ve got hominy grits. But grind the still-moist kernels and you’ve got masa.

Roll a little ball of masa, press it into a disk and cook it on a dry surface and you’ve got a tortilla.

Taco A tortilla warmed on a dry griddle and then folded or rolled around a filling. (The U-shaped, crisp-fried taco shell is an American invention.)

Quesadilla Either a tortilla folded around cheese and grilled, or a grilled cheese “sandwich” made of two tortillas.

Enchilada A tortilla that has been lightly fried until more pliable, then wrapped around a filling and, usually, topped with sauce.

Taquito A rolled taco that is fried until crisp.

Tostada A tortilla fried till it is crisp and flat, then topped with cheese, salsa, etc.

Chilaquiles Stale tortillas that have been broken up, fried and covered in a chile sauce and other toppings.

Sometimes, masa is formed into cakes a bit thicker than tortillas, resulting in:

Huaraches Named for the Mexican sandals they are said to resemble, these oval-shaped cakes rimmed with a slight ridge can be topped with cheese, beans, meat or a combination.

Chalupas smaller than huaraches, but also oval and rimmed.

Sopes These “little boats” are similar to chalupas, except they are round.

Arepas In Colombia and Venezuela, these stout masa cakes are ubiquitous.

Pupusas Thick Salvadoran masa pancakes studded with shredded pork or green chile and cheese.

The fattest of the masa-based foods are tamales, steamed packets (usually made of corn husks) filled with masa and cheese, meat, beans or fruit. They're called humitas in Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, and chuchitos in Guatemala.

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