Alex Roberts on the history and unexpected virtue of masa

By Alex Roberts, as told to John Garland
MN Spoon Boemer Roberts Masa Brisket WIPFLI10

Chef Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Brasa makes masa // Photo by Jon Wipfli

What we do at Alma is try to honor tradition without saying we’re cooking something traditional. Brasa is the same way—I’m not saying I can make rice and pigeon peas like your Puerto Rican grandmother. But I try to learn from tradition what is the best practice.

Alex Roberts // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The origin of the nixtamilization of corn is about 1500 BC–1200 BC; somewhere in the Aztec empire, they happened upon it. Of course no one really knows how it started, treating the kernels with alkalis. You could either use pure calcium hydroxide from the earth, mineral lime called “cal,” or potash (potassium hydroxide), the ash from burning plants, and heat it with corn and let it soak.

Now, we don’t throw ash into the pot with corn, but I’m guessing at some point it happened, and people realized it changed the aroma and taste of the corn. Then somewhere along the line, they also realized it helps dissolve the pericarp—the outside skin—which protects the kernel but is not digestible to us.

And it just so happens that also frees up niacin, vitamin B3, that’s otherwise trapped in the corn. Somehow this process of adding the alkalis makes the niacin bio-available. That tradition was born a long time ago and they stick with it because they know that if you don’t eat this, you’ll have health problems—like pellagra.

When corn made its way to Europe, it was easy to grow, and people liked it because it was golden, and they were eating copious amounts of it. All of a sudden, where they were getting their niacin from wheat or rye before, they weren’t getting it from corn because it was locked up in that grain.

MN Spoon Boemer Brisket69

Masa ready to be turned into tortillas // Photo by Kevin Kramer

For whatever reason, that process of alkalizing corn never took off in Europe. A theory is that Europe was further along with developing industrial processes—they didn’t have to soften the corn with alkalis when they could just run it through a mill. So, it stayed traditional only in Central America, Mexico, and the American South with hominy corn.

At the restaurants, we try to focus on what are superior products and what are great traditions in food—that’s what inspires us. I think masa is probably the best use of corn in the world, perhaps, in terms of how you unlock its nutrition, but also its flavor. I feel that because it’s a superior product, and that comes from a great tradition in our hemisphere, that American restaurants should feature it. But it isn’t—it’s still “Mexican” food. I mean, pasta isn’t Italian food anymore. Pasta is pasta. Maybe some Italian versions are the best, but it’s not foreign. Why should masa be foreign in this country?

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As a chef I have a philosophical issue with this. Let’s find a way to put that ingredient on our menu, but not feature it like a tortilla or pupusa, or anything traditional. We’ll call it a corn cake. It will be understated, but our process for the whole thing should produce a corn cake with such integrity that someone who grew up in a small village, maybe—who grew up on really good corn—would say that this reminds me of home. That’s my ultimate goal.

Photos by Jon Wipfli and Kevin Kramer
 
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John Garland About John Garland

John Garland is the Senior Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in real life at various bar patios in South Minneapolis.