A freshly ground masa tortilla, as it cooks on a comala, puffs up as the steam inside pushes up the sides and releases an intoxicating roasted corn aroma. It actually tastes like nutty, earthy corn, with a soft, chewy texture and an almost custard-like center. And its role is not just to transport taco filling and salsas from your plate to your mouth, but to complement and ground the bright, sour and spicy flavors with something rich and comforting, familiar and homey.
Chef Fermín Núñez de Suerte, in Austin, Texas, considers masa “the canvas of what Mexican cooking is all about.”
“Without masa,” he said, “there are no tortillas, and, without tortillas, there are no tacos!”
When it opened in 2018, luckily was one of the few restaurants in the country making masa of heritage types of corn and using it to make tortillas, tlacoyos, tlayudas, tamales and taquitos.
“I wanted to create a restaurant that was obsessed with creating the best masa from corn that was grown in Texas,” he said, adding that he hoped to make “a tortilla that was unique to us but reminded you of the best, which you have. had in Mexico.”
In the United States, we primarily eat processed, preservative-filled corn tortillas that range in flavor from bland to sour and musty. But that’s not how it should be. And this is not the case for many people living in Mexico, who have access to handmade tortillas made from freshly ground corn masa, and for whom masa is the cornerstone of the cuisine.
Nixtamalization, the art of turning corn into masa, is an ancient practice in Mesoamerica, documented as early as 1500 BC. To do it, you simply boil dried corn in water and cal, or calcium hydroxide, until the kernels soften. They are then ground into a homogeneous dough that holds whatever shape you choose to give it: thin circles for tortillas, thicker ones for gorditas and sopes, thick ovals for huaraches and triangles for black-face filled teats. This process increased the availability of nutrients in the corn, such as Vitamin B3, calcium and iron, helping to support the civilizations that built great ancient cities such as Teotihuacán, Tenochtitlán and Chichén-Itzá – and grew at least in part due to an energy-rich diet.
Today, corn — and masa — continues to be a bedrock, found in drinks like atole and the chocolate-corn drink champurado. Masa can be crumbled into sauces and stews like mole and uliche to add body, flavor and richness. It can be formed into dimpled balls and boiled in soups and stews to make dumplings called chochoyotes. In these dishes, the flavor of the corn gets all the focus. They are also great ways to display heirloom colors and varieties, of which there are many.
In the west-central state of Nayarit, corn stalks tower over the green valleys, while some varieties in the central state of Tlaxcala shine like red rubies in the late summer sun. Each of these varieties has a distinct color and taste, and companies like it Masienda makes some available as whole, unprocessed corn as well as ground masa harina (cornmeal for omelets) and ships across the United States.
To buy fresh masa, look for tortilla and totopo makers near you. They most likely nixtamalize their own corn daily to make their corn products, so you know it will be fresh. And they’ll probably sell you a pound or two.
There’s no reason to settle for those stale packaged tortillas when you can eat the colors and flavors of Mexico. Using good, fresh masa will make those weeknight taco nights more vibrantly colorful, beautifully delicious and, most importantly, more soulfully Mexican.