Anthropologist Claudia Serrato delves into the history of tamales, a favorite tradition during Christmas. Ricardo Ortega, a co-founder of Kernel of Truth Organics, used reverse engineering to build a better tortilla. Carlos Salgado champions heritage corn and masa at his award-winning restaurant in Costa Mesa. Alyshia Gálvez considers who should tell the story of masa and tortillas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Now that we've inspired you to do more with masa, what should you make? Tortillas are always a good bet… we host a whole tournament dedicated to them here at KCRW… but there's another option that makes brilliant use of masa. Yes, I'm talking about the tamal.
For Gustavo Arellano, the founder and host of our tortilla tournament, tamales mean Christmas.
Gustavo Arellano: You would have the whole army of tias, of aunts, getting together and one would make the masa, another one would spread the masa, the cooked masa, on the corn husk to make the tamal. Someone else would actually be in charge of boiling the water to make sure that the tamal cooked well.
And other people would make the guiso, the stew that would be inside the masa.
Claudia Serrato's tamaladas are legendary. And the culinary anthropologist will school you on the history of the dish.
Claudia Serrato: Tamales actually don't really have a true place of origin because they kind of existed all at the same time. So, many Indigenous pueblos throughout Mexico pretty much came up with their own style of tamales. There's always an idea that, oh, the tortilla came first. But the truth is no tamales did because of the method of preparation.
This ancient dish wasn't just for holidays.
Claudia Serrato: In pre-colonial times, the tamales were prepared all year long, and they were not made just as pockets of dough. They were actually filled. So fillings varied per region, per space, place and time. They were usually seasonal fillings. If people lived by the coast, then you would find more fish. For folks that were up in the hillside, you would see more rabbit or you would see more deer.
Tamales might have been filled with turkey, wild plants and whatever else was available.
Claudia Serrato: Iguana, even frogs, birds, shrimp, cricket tamales, larva tamales. And then there was avocados, beans, tomato, chilies, and my ultimate favorite which are cacao and fruit and vegetables. The majority of tamales, I will say, were plant-based.
Just as there were many fillings for tamales, there were many kinds of masa. Coarse masa. Wet masa. Thin masa. Thick masa. Yellow masa. Red masa. Blue masa.
Claudia Serrato: For 45 years now, my family continues to honor the tradition of the tamalada. And so every week, which is usually the week of Christmas, once a year, my family decides on what style of tamales we will be baking for that year to celebrate our resilience, our family unity, our cultura. We split and delegate who's going to gather, who's going to pound, who's going to masiada, who's going to participate in the steaming and in the separation of tamales.
Claudia is known for her bison blue corn tamales. For those, she often integrates quinoa into the masa. If she's making sweet tamales, she might add amaranth to the dough. The possibilities are endless.
Claudia Serrato: After we get through the grinding, then we go ahead and begin to prepare our masa. I like to do mine very traditionally.
I don't like to use a mixer for my masa. For me, it takes away that cultural connection. I'm really used to digging my hands in there, mixing it. It's a lot of arm work. And doing that work, it also reminds me of my grandmother, and this is a little emotional for me, but I remember her arms and I remember looking at them as a child.
Once the masa is ready to go, Claudia uses an ice cream scoop to dole it out onto corn husks that have been soaked in water. She spreads the masa and then…
Claudia Serrato: Depending on what we are filling it with, we get our portion and we place it right in the center. When we wrap our babies, we say wrap our babies like a tamal, like a tamalito, and we do the same thing to our tamal.
After that, the tamales are steamed, maybe for an hour, maybe longer. It depends on how many there are. The whole process involves 20 or so people and takes most of the day.
Claudia Serrato: It's labor intensive but that's the point to making the tamales because it creates unity, it brings us together. And not just that, but it asserts who we are as indigenous Mesoamerican peoples.
Finally, it's time to eat.
Claudia Serrato: Still covered in masa, still with our dirty aprons, we grab a plate or just through the masa, through the tamal itself, we just open it up and we use the husk of the corn to grab our tamal. We take our first bite.
As we are tasting and we're tasting for salt. We're tasting for flavor. We're tasting for a feeling that it creates in us. And it's a sense of accomplishment. You feel like you've completed your duty. You have honored yourself. You've honored the ancestors.
And then… It's time to make the next batch.
While homemade tamales are often a holiday treat, too labor-intensive to be made on the daily, tortillas are a workaday staple. But making a great tortilla isn't easy.
Ricardo Ortega: When you fold up that tortilla or make a taco out of it and you put it in your mouth and you take those bites, please try to remember that hardworking people with families worked very hard to get that done, to put it on your plates. I know from firsthand experience that tortilla making is one of the hardest things to do.
When Ortega and his business partner, Ommar Ahmed, launched Kernel of Truth Organics in Boyle Heights in 2014, they faced all the usual hurdles. Location, space, equipment, consistency, cash flow, long hours. They also struggled with a more theoretical issue.
Ricardo Ortega: Our biggest hurdle in our operation really was dissecting what a true tortilla should be, even before we offered it to anybody. Because where we come from, tortillas are designed to maximize profits and the only way to do that is to alter its true design. The tortilla in the big industry is chock full of gums, additives, softeners, preservatives, you name it. The running joke with Ommar is there's more corn on the logos than there is in the actual tortilla.
Finding the kind of corn they wanted was an issue. Kernel of Truth has sourced corn from Masienda, from the Tehachapi Grain Project, from farmers in Nebraska and Illinois. These days, they rely on dent corn, in both yellow and blue varieties.
When it arrives, they need to nixtamalize it. This involves soaking it in an alkaline solution made of water and lime. We're not talking about the kind of lime you might squeeze into a gin & tonic. We're talking about slaked lime, or calcium hydroxide, often called cal.
It's a crucial step in the process because it loosens the hull around each corn kernel, raises the calcium content and increases the bioavailability of vitamin B3.
Nixtamalization played an important role in keeping people healthy. In pre-colonial times, while people around the world were suffering from pellagra, a disease caused by niacin deficiency, the indigenous inhabitants of Mesoamerica had no such problems.
Once Ricardo and Omar nixtamalize and grind their corn, it's time to make the masa that they will eventually turn into tortillas.
Ricardo Ortega: So the immediate way to tell if the masa is good is the minute you pick up your ball of masa and you open up the bag, you shouldn't smell any acidity. The acidity is all the preservatives. What you should smell is corn.
Then, it's a race against time to get the masa pressed into tortillas, cooked, packaged and delivered.
Ricardo Ortega: Blue corn does not like to stay fresh. It likes to spoil and its shelf life is not like that of yellow corn. Yellow corn's a little bit more stable, the pHs are better and it does last longer.
Although things have gotten a bit easier, Ricardo knows full well the challenges that Kernel of Truth faces.
Ricardo Ortega: So running a small tortilla business with all the competition around us, with GRUMA and with all the political ties surrounding that, it has become very difficult. It's been hard to be the small guy. I think luckily we have a lot of resources in Boyle Heights. So even though we have these big, big corporate names out there that are kind of muscling in, it's the producers that are run by families who are our saving grace.
Fresh, high-quality masa is also critical for chef Carlos Salgado's business. When he was getting ready to open his own restaurant, his first priority was building a better tortilla. He turned to Jorge Gaviria at Masienda.
Carlos Salgado: He sent to us our very first bag of Cónico Azul, the blue corn from, I think it was the state of Mexico at the time. I proceeded to conduct a variety of tests in terms of quantity of cal and cooking time and what the doneness would be. And I do recall the very first time we got a beautiful tortilla.
And I handed it to my dad and he fell silent and one of his cooks did the same. After a moment, my dad quite emotionally said that he hadn't tasted anything like that in 30, 40 years, since having come to this country. And that's when I knew that I had the foundation. I had the first tool that I needed to build a restaurant like I had imagined in Taco María.
Taco María, in Costa Mesa, has gone on to earn rave reviews and to win numerous awards, including a coveted Michelin star. The way a Japanese chef knows the nuances of rice or an Italian chef is attuned to the subtle differences in pasta, Carlos Salgado studies corn.
Carlos Salgado: The fundamentals of cooking corn with alkali solution, resting it, grinding it into a masa and then forming it into tortillas is simple on its face. But the nuances take time to learn. The exact doneness of a particular variety or even a particular bag or from a particular harvest of dried maize will be different from day to day. The exact water content of the finished masa for tortillas or for tamales is also an instinctive and delicate thing.
He isn't the only chef who's upping his masa game. This new wave of appreciation for masa has been a boon to diners and cooks around the world.
Carlos Salgado: As I told Jorge not too long ago, the situation we have now with the availability of heirloom corn tortillas in Southern California, in the United States and in other parts of the world is exactly the situation that we wanted and had envisioned and hoped for when we got started all those years ago. I wanted for myself and for my restaurant to have access to and to be able to share the full spectrum of flavors and colors and textures and aromas that the world of corn provides.
Alyshia Galvez: There definitely is a masa revival, a renaissance of tortillas.
Again, that's professor Alyshia Galvez.
Alyshia Galvez: I think in some ways, my only critique of the idea of a revival or renaissance would be the "re." I don't think tortillas and masa have ever really gone away for any of us.
I'm from L.A. I know Southern California listeners have never stopped loving tortillas or eating them and so I think we have a certain amount of healthy skepticism of this kind of narrative of discovery, some people call it a Columbusing of something that has been here all along.
What does masa's surge in popularity mean for the people who grow corn in Mexico, the land of its birth?
Alyshia Galvez: The revival that we see where now a lot of us living in the United States and around the world can eat excellent, fresh tortillas from nixtamalized corn that was ground the same day, is a beautiful thing but it's also, unfortunately, often an elite thing that prices people out to whom this tradition historically belongs.
There's a concept that I think about a lot, which I call narrative capital. And we have to think about who gets to tell stories? Whose stories are audible to whom? And elite chefs have all kinds of capital.
The idea that a chef is needed to respect corn or to tell corn's story is absurd because that's a story that's inherent to the origin stories of Indigenous communities throughout the Americas. And so I think we have to be cautious when we think about all kinds of capital and capitalism, that the ability to tell stories, narrative capital is one kind of capital that gets manipulated in the global market, and we have to be attentive to who has it and who has had it taken from them.
The irony isn't lost on Masienda founder Jorge Gaviria.
Jorge Gaviria: It's ironic, not in a hipster way, but definitely an intellectual way, to take corn from the origin of corn itself and sell to folks in arguably the largest, most powerful corn producing country and nation ever, today, which is the U.S.
Masa Corn Dog (with Huitlacoche “Mustard”)
Makes 8 servings
Having trained under molecular gastronomy legends Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne, Alex Stupak was a young pastry prodigy before applying his talents to masa at Empellón in New York City. Alex has a deep devotion to Mexican cuisine, but he’s not afraid to mash up traditional techniques with modern flavors, as in these Masa Corn Dogs.
Huitlacoche, also known as cuitlacoche, corn truffle, or corn smut, is best when fresh. Because fresh huitlacoche only lasts about 7 to 10 days refrigerated, it can be difficult to find. It will usually be located in the refrigerated area of the produce section of your local Latin grocer.
If you are unable to find fresh huitlacoche, canned huitlacoche may be substituted here. Just make sure to strain out all of the canning liquid before use. Canned huitlacoche is available online and at most Latin grocers.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 Tbsp finely chopped onion
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 small serrano chile, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped
- 1 medium tomato, roughly chopped
- 7 oz [200 g] fresh huitlacoche or one 7 oz [198 g] can huitlacoche (corn smut), rinsed and drained
- 1⁄3 cup plus 1 Tbsp [100 g] Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp mezcal
- 1⁄2 tsp sugar
- 1⁄2 tsp MSG
- 1⁄4 tsp fish sauce
- 1 lb [455 g] Table Tortilla Masa
- About 1 cup [240 ml] milk
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp fine salt
- 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp calcium hydroxide (lime)
- 2 qt [1.9 L] vegetable oil, for frying
- 8 hot dogs
- Chili salt
- Lime wedges, for serving
- To make the huitlacoche mustard: Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the
onion, garlic, and chile and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato and cook, stirring and raising the heat to medium as needed, to release and then evaporate the juices, about 5 minutes. Add the huitlacoche and cook until its juices have released and evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes more. Transfer to a blender. Add the Dijon mustard, mezcal, sugar, MSG, and fish sauce, and purée on high speed until smooth. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- To make the corn dogs: Crumble the masa into a blender. Add the milk, egg, and salt, and purée on high speed until combined. Transfer to a large bowl. Fold in the flour, baking powder, and calcium hydroxide until just combined. (The mixture will thicken a bit as it sits.) Let rest for 5 minutes and use immediately thereafter.
- In a pot that’s 2 in [5 cm] wider than the skewers, heat 3 in [7.5 cm] of oil to 350°F [180°C]. Insert a skewer
lengthwise through the center of each hot dog, leaving 1 in [2.5 cm] or so of skewer exposed at the end.
Fill a 1 pt [480 ml] glass with the batter. Submerge a hot dog into the batter, coating it all over. Fry one or two hot dogs at a time, depending on the size of your pot, until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Let drain on a wire rack or paper towel–lined plate. Season with chili salt. Repeat until all the hot dogs are fried. Serve the corn dogs with lime wedges and the huitlacoche mustard on the side.
Makes sixteen 4oz. (115g) servings
Chef Carlos Salgado trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area before earning his own star for his Alta California–inspired restaurant, Taco María, in Costa Mesa, California. Having worked mostly in pastry prior to opening Taco María, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that Carlos rarely serves dessert at his restaurant. If you visit often enough, however, you may be lucky enough to try something he’s working on for fun, like the breakfasty coffee atole featured here, or his sublime strawberry tamal (you’ll have to ask him for that one).
- 4 cups [960 ml] whole milk, plus more as needed
- 2 cups [480 ml] heavy cream
- 2 1⁄4 cups [200 g] dark-roast coffee beans
- 1 vanilla bean (preferably Mexican)
- 6 oz [170 g] Table Tortilla Masa (preferably white)
- 7 oz [200 g] evaporated cane sugar
- 1⁄2 tsp kosher salt
- Combine the milk and cream in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, being careful to not let it boil over. While the mixture warms, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, place the coffee beans. Split open the vanilla bean and scrape the contents into the bowl. Add the husk and any seeds.
- Pour the boiling milk mixture over the beans and vanilla. Set the bowl in the ice bath to cool. Refrigerate for 48 hours, stirring well once after 24 hours.
- Strain the mixture through a fine chinois or sieve. Weigh the strained mixture and add more milk to make about 48 oz [1.5 L] (about 61⁄2 cups).
- Reserve 12 oz [360 ml] of the infused dairy mixture. Pour the remainder into a large flat-bottomed pot. Warm to 185°F [85°C], until the mixture just simmers around the edges.
- Add the reserved dairy mixture to a blender along with the masa and purée until smooth. Strain.
- Whisk the strained purée into the pot with the simmering mixture. Turn up the heat slightly and continue stirring carefully until the mixture boils, scraping the bottom with a spatula to avoid scorching.
- When the mixture has come to a boil, is uniformly thickened, and no longer has the flavor of raw masa—3 to 5 minutes—remove it from the heat. Whisk in the sugar and salt until dissolved, then strain into another pot or insulated container before serving. Serve immediately. It can be kept hot in a tightly covered container to prevent a skin from forming over the top. If it does form, whisk or shear the atole with an immersion blender just before serving.
Note: Evaporated cane sugar is sold as azúcar morena at Mexican grocers. The two days of steeping develops a
deeper flavor, so don’t skip that part!
Reprinted from Masa by Jorge Gaviria with permission from Chronicle Books, 2022. Photographs © Graydon
More: Did today's episode make you hungry? Find the works of those you heard on our masa show. You can also head to Masienda's website for their Masa Map, where you'll find a list of great masa spots around the country.