There's Never Been a Better Time to Get to Know Masa, the Bedrock of Mexican Cuisine

Here's where U.S. chefs are championing Masa, Mexico’s Iconic corn dough.

<p>Simon McGill / Getty Images</p>

Simon McGill / Getty Images

“Sin maíz, no hay país.”

“Without corn, there is no country.”

It’s a battle cry that you can find emblazoned on shirts and hats and hear from many Mexicans and members of that diaspora — including an ever-expanding throng of chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs.

Corn is fundamental to Mexican identity. In fact, according to one Mayan myth, Mexicans are considered to be created directly from corn — a plant that symbolizes fertility, life, and sustenance. And you cannot talk about corn in Mexican culture without talking about nixtamalization, a millennia-old process in which kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution and then peeled. Nixtamalization not only transforms the hard corn kernels into a soft, pliable grain, but it also increases the nutritional value of the corn, freeing up essential nutrients. Masa, the dough made from ground nixtamalized corn, is the bedrock of Mexican cuisine, used in everything from tortillas and tamales to beverages like atole.

For many people, masa always meant Maseca, an industrial masa harina (literally, “dough flour”) invented in Mexico in 1949. While Maseca is convenient — just add water, and you have your masa ready for making tortillas in mere minutes — and a staple in many home and restaurant kitchens, it doesn’t achieve the dynamic aromas and toasty flavor that masa made from heirloom varieties provides. 2023 F&W Best New Chef Isabel Coss of Pascual in Washington, D.C., says that when she was growing up in Mexico City, she mainly saw pale white corn and tortillas unless she visited family in more rural areas. Finding heirloom varieties, which come in a range of colors, was a challenge.

Coss is among a rising generation of Mexican and Mexican American chefs around the United States and across Mexico who are now prioritizing heirloom corn and high-quality masa on their menus. At Pascual, Coss turns to masa as the base for the super-crispy batter for her fish tacos, as a thickening agent, and for tuiles and syrups in the pastry kitchen. “Masa can do it all,” she says. “In the pastry chef brain, masa is the perfect starch. You don’t have to worry about gluten, and it’s so versatile.”

Then there are the more traditional applications: In Brooklyn, chef Matt Diaz of For All Things Good makes piles of fresh masa that he turns into gorgeous quesadillas stuffed with fresh squash blossoms, large tlayudas topped with creamy black beans, and comforting tamales.

Related: How to Make Tortillas, Tacos, and Pupusas With Homemade Masa

Many chefs are nixtamalizing corn in-house, including 2021 F&W Best New Chef Fermín Núñez, of the restaurants Suerte and Este in Austin. He soaks the corn he sources from farms across Texas for eight to 12 hours before grinding it into the masa that he transforms into 3,000 tortillas each day. Just a few miles away at Nixta Taqueria, 2023 F&W Best New Chef Edgar Rico and his team turn out sturdier tortillas from their housemade masa for dishes like a carrot tostada, which holds chewy roasted carrots on a bed of whipped herb ricotta. At Tatemó in Houston, 2023 F&W Best New Chef Emmanuel Chavez uses housemade masa in nearly every part of his tasting menu, from gorditas to quesadillas, as well as the restaurant’s more casual brunch menu. The star? A stack of fluffy masa pancakes with crispy caramelized edges and a smooth corn flavor, thanks to a flour made from dehydrated masa.

Even bakers are getting in on the action. At Gusto Bread in Long Beach, California, customers line up for the bakery’s Nixtamal Queen, a take on a kouign amann, in which masa sourdough is laminated with a generous amount of butter and organic cane sugar and baked into a beautifully caramelized pastry that tastes of Frosted Flakes. Pastry and savory chefs alike agree that not only is masa easy to work with, it is redolent with flavor, making everything taste better.

The roots of the masa revolution began, as masa itself does, in the fields. Many of these restaurants source their heirloom corn from Tamoa, a Mexico City–based company leading the charge to preserve a number of Mexico’s heirloom crops — especially the country’s 59 native landrace corn varieties. “Corn goes so deep and means so much to the Mexican identity; it’s almost hard to explain,” says Tamoa cofounder Francisco Musi. “It’s just part of the very fiber of our being.”

Musi, the son of a Mexico City taquero, founded Tamoa nearly eight years ago with his partner, Sofia Casarin, while he was helping a London restaurant set up an in-house nixtamalization program. Today, Tamoa works with 84 family farms stretching across central and southern Mexico (a number that’s rising steadily), which provide the 25 varieties of heirloom corn the company currently sells. Among their offerings are blue Cónico Azul corn, which has a soft texture and a gently sweet flavor, and Bolita Amarillo, with its starch-dense yellow kernels that are perfect for making tortillas.

Tamoa’s dedication to the preservation of heirloom Mexican corn is revolutionary in many ways. Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 (now the USMCA), which created a free-trade zone between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, the Mexican market has been flooded with cheap commodity corn from the U.S. — corn that is often lower in quality and grown for scale and price rather than taste. As a result, over the past 30 years, the quality of corn available has steadily plummeted, and the small farmers who still grow Mexico’s heirloom corn, often known as subsistence farmers, have been struggling to survive. But, thanks to companies like Tamoa, the tide is turning.

The company is part of a growing movement in Mexico and the U.S. that is championing Mexico’s heirloom corn farmers and supporting self-reliance and fair market prices. In order not to damage fragile food systems, Tamoa sells only the excess corn a farmer harvests; this way, they do not deplete the corn supplies that feed the communities they work with. “Corn transcends economic and religious barriers. It is essential to Mexican survival,” says Musi. Joining in Tamoa’s efforts is Jorge Gaviria’s Masienda, founded in Los Angeles in 2014. Masienda works with more than 2,000 small farmers throughout Mexico and sells single-origin masa harina made from heirloom corn in a rainbow of colors.


While companies like Tamoa and Masienda work to support small-scale corn farmers in Mexico, there’s also a growing movement that focuses on nixtamalizing corn grown in the U.S. Chef Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa in Philadelphia is at the forefront of this movement with the worker-owned collective that she helped create, Masa Cooperativa. Instead of importing corn from Mexico, the collective works to cultivate lesser-known corn varieties grown and preserved by the mid-Atlantic’s Indigenous tribes, like the Mohawk and the Lenape. Fermín Núñez in Austin has a similar philosophy: “For me, it was important to show that you can apply Mexican cooking techniques to the highest-quality local ingredients.”

Whether made from corn from the U.S. or Mexico, the quality and variety of masa in reach of home cooks and chefs, in all of its earthy, fragrant goodness, is perhaps the best it has ever been; there’s never been a better time to get to know this ingredient. And you don’t need any special equipment to do so — high-quality masa harina can easily be ordered from companies like Masienda.

There’s still plenty of educating to be done. Coss keeps raw corn kernels on hand at Pascual so that staff can explain to guests that the red and blue masa used at the restaurant is not fake — and that corn does actually come in many colors. “We have customers asking if the tortillas and corn have been painted,” she says. Still, she’s optimistic about what lies ahead: “Corn may have started in Mexico, but now it belongs to everyone. It’s up to us to consume it so we can help preserve it.”

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