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Masa, Mexico’s Iconic Corn Dough, Is Having a Second within the U.S.

“Sin maíz, no hay país.”

“With out corn, there is no such thing as a nation.”

It’s a battle cry that you will discover emblazoned on shirts and hats and listen to from many Mexicans and members of that diaspora — together with an ever-expanding throng of cooks, bakers, and restaurateurs. 

Corn is key to Mexican identification. In reality, in accordance with one Mayan delusion, Mexicans are thought of to be created immediately from corn — a plant that symbolizes fertility, life, and sustenance. And you can’t discuss corn in Mexican tradition with out speaking about nixtamalization, a millennia-old course of through which kernels are soaked in an alkaline answer after which peeled. Nixtamalization not solely transforms the arduous corn kernels right into a comfortable, pliable grain, but it surely additionally will increase the dietary worth of the corn, releasing up important vitamins. Masa, the dough comprised of floor nixtamalized corn, is the bedrock of Mexican delicacies, utilized in every part from tortillas and tamales to drinks like atole.

For many individuals, masa at all times meant Maseca, an industrial masa harina (actually, “dough flour”) invented in Mexico in 1949. Whereas Maseca is handy — simply add water, and you’ve got your masa prepared for making tortillas in mere minutes — and a staple in lots of residence and restaurant kitchens, it doesn’t obtain the dynamic aromas and toasty taste that masa comprised of heirloom varieties gives. 2023 F&W Greatest New Chef Isabel Coss of Pascual in Washington, D.C., says that when she was rising up in Mexico Metropolis, she primarily noticed pale white corn and tortillas except she visited household in additional rural areas. Discovering heirloom varieties, which are available in a spread of colours, was a problem. 

Coss is amongst a rising era of Mexican and Mexican American cooks round america and throughout Mexico who at the moment are prioritizing heirloom corn and high-quality masa on their menus. At Pascual, Coss turns to masa as the bottom for the super-crispy batter for her fish tacos, as a thickening agent, and for tuiles and syrups within the pastry kitchen. “Masa can do all of it,” she says. “Within the pastry chef mind, masa is the proper starch. You don’t have to fret about gluten, and it’s so versatile.”

Then there are the extra conventional purposes: In Brooklyn, chef Matt Diaz of For All Issues Good makes piles of contemporary masa that he turns into beautiful quesadillas full of contemporary squash blossoms, massive tlayudas topped with creamy black beans, and comforting tamales.

Many cooks are nixtamalizing corn in-house, together with 2021 F&W Greatest New Chef Fermín Núñez, of the eating places Suerte and Este in Austin. He soaks the corn he sources from farms throughout Texas for eight to 12 hours earlier than grinding it into the masa that he transforms into 3,000 tortillas every day. Only a few miles away at Nixta Taqueria, 2023 F&W Greatest New Chef Edgar Rico and his staff end up sturdier tortillas from their housemade masa for dishes like a carrot tostada, which holds chewy roasted carrots on a mattress of whipped herb ricotta. At Tatemó in Houston, 2023 F&W Greatest New Chef Emmanuel Chavez makes use of housemade masa in almost each a part of his tasting menu, from gorditas to quesadillas, in addition to the restaurant’s extra informal brunch menu. The star? A stack of fluffy masa pancakes with crispy caramelized edges and a clean corn taste, because of a flour comprised of dehydrated masa.

Even bakers are getting in on the motion. At Gusto Bread in Lengthy Seaside, California, prospects line up for the bakery’s Nixtamal Queen, a tackle a kouign amann, through which masa sourdough is laminated with a beneficiant quantity of butter and natural cane sugar and baked right into a superbly caramelized pastry that tastes of Frosted Flakes. Pastry and savory cooks alike agree that not solely is masa straightforward to work with, it’s redolent with taste, making every part style higher.

The roots of the masa revolution started, as masa itself does, within the fields. Many of those eating places supply their heirloom corn from Tamoa, a Mexico Metropolis–based mostly firm main the cost to protect quite a few Mexico’s heirloom crops — particularly the nation’s 59 native landrace corn varieties. “Corn goes so deep and means a lot to the Mexican identification; it’s virtually arduous to elucidate,” says Tamoa cofounder Francisco Musi. “It’s simply a part of the very fiber of our being.”

Musi, the son of a Mexico Metropolis taquero, based Tamoa almost eight years in the past together with his accomplice, Sofia Casarin, whereas he was serving to a London restaurant arrange an in-house nixtamalization program. Right now, Tamoa works with 84 household farms stretching throughout central and southern Mexico (a quantity that’s rising steadily), which offer the 25 forms of heirloom corn the corporate at present sells. Amongst their choices are blue Cónico Azul corn, which has a comfortable texture and a gently candy taste, and Bolita Amarillo, with its starch-dense yellow kernels which might be good for making tortillas. 

Tamoa’s dedication to the preservation of heirloom Mexican corn is revolutionary in some ways. For the reason that passage of the North American Free Commerce Settlement in 1994 (now the USMCA), which created a free-trade zone between Canada, america, and Mexico, the Mexican market has been flooded with low-cost commodity corn from the U.S. — corn that’s typically decrease in high quality and grown for scale and worth somewhat than style. Because of this, over the previous 30 years, the standard of corn accessible has steadily plummeted, and the small farmers who nonetheless develop Mexico’s heirloom corn, typically referred to as subsistence farmers, have been struggling to outlive. However, because of firms like Tamoa, the tide is popping. 

The corporate is a part of a rising motion in Mexico and the U.S. that’s championing Mexico’s heirloom corn farmers and supporting self-reliance and honest market costs. So as to not harm fragile meals methods, Tamoa sells solely the surplus corn a farmer harvests; this fashion, they don’t deplete the corn provides that feed the communities they work with. “Corn transcends financial and non secular limitations. It’s important to Mexican survival,” says Musi. Becoming a member of in Tamoa’s efforts is Jorge Gaviria’s Masienda, based in Los Angeles in 2014. Masienda works with greater than 2,000 small farmers all through Mexico and sells single-origin masa harina comprised of heirloom corn in a rainbow of colours.  

Whereas firms like Tamoa and Masienda work to assist small-scale corn farmers in Mexico, there’s additionally a rising motion that focuses on nixtamalizing corn grown within the U.S. Chef Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa in Philadelphia is on the forefront of this motion with the worker-owned collective that she helped create, Masa Cooperativa. As a substitute of importing corn from Mexico, the collective works to domesticate lesser-known corn varieties grown and preserved by the mid-Atlantic’s Indigenous tribes, just like the Mohawk and the Lenape. Fermín Núñez in Austin has an analogous philosophy: “For me, it was necessary to indicate which you could apply Mexican cooking strategies to the highest-quality native substances.” 

Whether or not comprised of corn from the U.S. or Mexico, the standard and number of masa in attain of residence cooks and cooks, in all of its earthy, aromatic goodness, is maybe the perfect it has ever been; there’s by no means been a greater time to get to know this ingredient. And also you don’t want any particular gear to take action — high-quality masa harina can simply be ordered from firms like Masienda. 

There’s nonetheless loads of educating to be executed. Coss retains uncooked corn kernels readily available at Pascual in order that employees can clarify to company that the crimson and blue masa used on the restaurant will not be faux — and that corn does truly are available in many colours. “We’ve got prospects asking if the tortillas and corn have been painted,” she says. Nonetheless, she’s optimistic about what lies forward: “Corn might have began in Mexico, however now it belongs to everybody. It’s as much as us to eat it so we may help protect it.”

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