Artisanal masa de tortilla (produced through traditional nixtamalization) is a product connected to the native peoples of the southwestern United States. Nixtamal is dried corn (maize) kernels that have been specially prepared in alkaline lime solution for the soul purpose of creating a more digestible, nutrient-enriched corn. This corn can then be used whole or ground into a corn flour dough as a foundation for a variety of corn based dishes, including tortillas, tamales, enchiladas, and pozole. The process of Nixtamalization makes corn easier to grind, digest, increases the nutritional value, increases the flavor and aroma, and it reduces potential unhealthy mycotoxins caused by molds that can infect maize.
Fresh traditional Nixtamal produces a fresh, soft, creamy pozole, or a superior aromatic hand made masa de tortilla. The mixture of water and alkaline lime solution, known as nejayote, adds a dimension of floral and earthy mineral notes to the kernels, yielding a distinct flavor unlike the taste of sweet corn. Different varieties of corn produce their own distinct flavor and texture. Nixtamalized blue corn produces a coarser and grainier consistency with a more intense, nuttier and sweeter taste from the higher oil and protein content. The final nixtamalized masa readily picks up the flavors of whatever it is prepared with, including aromatic herbs, chile peppers, sweet potatoes, pork, chicken, turkey, or mole sauce.
Nixtamalization is an ancient technology that dates back to Mesoamerica, where maize was first cultivated by the Mayans and Aztecs from the wild grass teosinte that grew in open woodlands. The Aztecs and the Mayans figured out this important first step of processing maize by grinding the kernels by hand on lava stone along the riverbeds. The technology spread with the domestication and cross-pollination of corn and traditional cuisine as Native Americans migrated north into the Southwestern U.S., across the Caribbean, and south to Peru. When Spanish explorers brought maize from the “New World” to Europe, they failed to introduce the nixtamal process. Consequently, many people suffered from pellagra, a nutritional deficiency caused by the lack of Vitamin B3, and malnutrition spread across Europe, Africa, and North America in epidemic proportions. Nixtamilization also significantly increases the calcium content of corn; the nutritional benefits of nixtamalization simply cannot be understated. In the early to mid 1900s, small nixtamal mills opened up across Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. following the invention of the motorized engine. Now, the convenience of instant nixtamalized corn flour, produced by mills, has greatly replaced the traditional practice of making fresh nixtamal at home.
While the traditional practice of making fresh nixtamal from native heirloom corn has been passed down over the years, it is a lost art not well understood outside Native American and Hispanic communities. What was once a daily ritual practice of providing fresh hominy and masa used as a base for many dishes, has been largely replaced by the convenience of industrial nixtamal production, complicated by the omnipresence of GMO contaminants, the extent of which are unclear. As more and more people seek to support locally grown food, it is important to understand this very important process of preparing the corn, while working to promote and protect heirloom maize varieties, sustainable land practices, and the associated rich culinary heritage.
It is important to preserve the traditional art of nixtamalization in terms of protecting biodiversity, supporting sustainable agriculture, and promoting the use of native heirloom corn varieties.