NPR logo Chefs' Secret For More Flavorful Tortillas? Heirloom Corn From Mexico

Food History & Culture

Chefs' Secret For More Flavorful Tortillas? Heirloom Corn From Mexico

Most people in the world have never experienced the taste of the kind of tortillas Hilda Pastor makes using heirloom corn. That's because of the rise of mass-produced instant corn flour. Marisa Peñaloza/NPR hide caption

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Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

Most people in the world have never experienced the taste of the kind of tortillas Hilda Pastor makes using heirloom corn. That's because of the rise of mass-produced instant corn flour.

Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

On a sunny morning in Guadalupe Victoria, near the Guatemalan border in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, Hilda Pastor is washing corn in her backyard sink to make tortillas. It's a daily ritual that starts the night before.

"I mix dried kernels, water and a spoonful of cal" — that's calcium hydroxide or slaked lime, "and it soaks overnight," says Pastor, a 48-year-old mother of three.

This tortilla-making process was invented by the Aztecs 600 years ago and is called "nixtamalizing." It softens the corn and heightens its flavor and nutritional value.

Most people in the world have never experienced the taste of the kind of tortillas Pastor makes using heirloom corn. That's because of the rise of Maseca, a mass-produced instant corn flour commonly sold at Latin markets worldwide, including in Mexico.

"Tortillas made with Maseca taste like plastic; they have no flavor," Pastor says as she presses her dough into round discs. "It's very important for me and my family to keep our tradition alive."

One way to keep tradition alive is to create demand for the heirloom corn varieties that give traditional tortillas like Pastor's their richness of flavor.

Hilda Pastor's husband, Anibal Lopez, hopes that more people can find appreciation for heirloom corn flavor. Commercial corn production in the U.S. has made it difficult for farmers like Lopez, who cultivates heirloom varieties in Mexico, to make a living. Marisa Peñaloza/NPR hide caption

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Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

Hilda Pastor's husband, Anibal Lopez, hopes that more people can find appreciation for heirloom corn flavor. Commercial corn production in the U.S. has made it difficult for farmers like Lopez, who cultivates heirloom varieties in Mexico, to make a living.

Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, a research center in Texcoco, Mexico, there are 60 unique landrace or heirloom varieties of corn in Mexico. Every corn variety in the world comes from these — from small purple kernels to larger red, orange and yellow kernels.

But commercial, mechanized corn production in the U.S. is based mainly on hybridization of two American landraces: the Southern Dents and the Northern Flints.

That's made it hard for farmers who cultivate heirloom varieties in Mexico, like Pastor's husband, Anibal Lopez, to make a living. He grows a subsistence crop to feed his family.

"I just wish that more people could appreciate the flavors of criollo or heirloom corn," Lopez says.

Enter Jorge Gaviria.

The American entrepreneur founded specialty ingredient purveyor Masienda in 2014. Gaviria buys surplus high-quality heirloom corn from small-holder farmers in Mexico and imports it to the United States. His goal: to bridge a Mexican ancient tradition and the American palate.

Gaviria, the son of a Cuban father and a Mexican mother, grew up in Miami and trained as an apprentice at Blue Hill at Stone Barns — Dan Barber's high-end, farm-to-table restaurant in Tarrytown, N.Y. — where he learned about sustainable agriculture.

"What really stuck with me was the idea of reclaiming ingredients that we have really lost touch with in the age of commercial and industrial agriculture," he says.

Though tortillas have always been part of Gaviria's diet, he realized he didn't know much about corn. His original idea was to open a tortilleria, so he set out to find the best quality corn out there.

Jorge Gaviria founded Masienda in 2014. Molly DeCoudreaux/Courtesy of Jorge Gaviria hide caption

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Molly DeCoudreaux/Courtesy of Jorge Gaviria

Jorge Gaviria founded Masienda in 2014.

Molly DeCoudreaux/Courtesy of Jorge Gaviria

Tortillas and chips are big business in the U.S., but the $6 billion industry is not very diverse. "The U.S. produces more corn than anywhere else in the world," says Gaviria, "but roughly 98.5 percent of it is dedicated to anything but human food" — things like ethanol or animal feed.

Gaviria's research took him to Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. He says he'll never forget the first time he ate an heirloom corn tortilla.

"The smell coming out of my plate was something I'd never smelled before — it was life changing," he says. "Tortillas had a lasting flavor that didn't just disappear in my mouth, and it really stayed with me."

There are about 3 million small-holder farmers in Mexico, according to CIMMYT. These Mexican farmers and their ancestors have grown heirloom corn for subsistence for thousands of years. "They are the custodians of heirloom corn," says Gaviria. "The entire global corn supply – it all originates in Mexico."

Gaviria started working with 100 farmers, buying their surplus corn. Today he's enlisted 1,200 farmers, he says. His goal is to help farmers in Mexico who are "growing something really unique" to find buyers. These farmers are the "key link to preserving the flavor, the tradition and the genetic diversity of Mexico," he says.

But identifying the farmers wasn't enough. Gaviria's next challenge was to enlist chefs in the United States. He wants American chefs and the diners they serve to start to see corn as "an ingredient that's worth taking an extra second to appreciate and admire."

To generate interest, Gaviria has been traveling the country like a Johnny Appleseed of Mexican corn. Masienda now has around 200 clients, including the meal-kit delivery company Blue Apron and chef Rick Bayless' retail food business, Frontera Foods.

Chef Alexis Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria, a trendy Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., buys imported, dried corn from Masienda. Marisa Peñaloza/NPR hide caption

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Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

Chef Alexis Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria, a trendy Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., buys imported, dried corn from Masienda.

Marisa Peñaloza/NPR

Another chef who has joined Gaviria's corn crusade is Alexis Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria, a trendy Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., that opened about a year ago.

Samayoa says he was determined to offer authentic foods made with masa, or corn-flour dough, from Oaxaca, like tlayudas – a sort of Mexican pizza made with masa and refried beans instead of wheat flour and tomato sauce.

"It's all about the flavor," he says. But nixtamalizing the corn to make masa is "a big process. It starts today and it ends tomorrow."

It's also a big investment. Samayoa estimates he pays an extra $3,000 every two weeks for heirloom corn products. He not only buys imported, dried corn from Masienda, but also owns his own lava rock corn grinder and a tortilla press. And Samayoa has hired a couple of workers solely to make the masa and tortillas.

He walks to a corner of the restaurant where sacks of corn labeled chalqueno cremoso are stacked up against a Frida Kahlo mural. He prizes this particular variety for its unique taste.

"It has that richness and sweetness of corn," he says. "There is just this sweet, nutty, silky flavor that it's just right."

Plus, he says, "it's very satisfying to honor and preserve ancient culinary traditions," while also hearing customers say, "'Wow, this corn is great.'"