Corn is truly a staple of the Mexican diet. Just as rice is eaten with each meal in China, and bread in much of Western Europe, for most Mexicans a meal is not complete without tortillas.
Thousands of years ago, it was discovered that dried corn could be converted to masa, or dough, through a process called nixtamalization. The corn kernels are simmered in water with an addition of powdered slaked lime, also called cal. This alkaline brew softens the kernels and their outer husks, allowing the corn to then be ground and formed into a dough, also releasing the enclosed nutrients, making them more easily digestible. This masa can be transformed into tortillas, tlayudas, and other forms, or mixed with lard and stock to make tamales.
Amado Ramirez Leyva is the proprietor of a small restaurant in Oaxaca City called Itanoni (which means “corn flower”). His restaurant’s mission is to preserve the traditional heirloom varieties of corn that have been used for making masa for generations. With the influx of agribusiness concerns such as Cargill in Mexico, much of the corn now produced is of genetically modified strains. As more people eschew village life to seek work in the cities, the traditional crops are being lost to history. Amado still treks to the remote villages of Oaxaca to purchase corn, the small surplus that these subsistence farmers produce. The quesadillas, memelas, and tetelas that I ate at Itanoni are the gold standard which I hope to emulate at Comal.
We have a unique arrangement with Tortilleria El Molino in Concord. They pick up bags of dried corn from Comal and bring back delicious masa made to our specifications (using the nixtamalization process described above) several times a week . Whether in familiar forms such as tortillas, enchiladas or tamales, or the less common tlayudas and memelas, masa holds a prominent place on our menu. Not just delicious, corn masa is also gluten free. It is nutritious, filling, and low in fat, of course that is until you stuff it full of juicy carnitas!