Jorge Gaviria Wants to Make Masa the New Sourdough
With his new cookbook, ‘Masa,’ the Masienda founder illustrates the variety of uses of the once overlooked corn flour
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Jorge Gaviria spends a lot of time meditating on corn flour. In his new cookbook, Masa: Techniques, Recipes, and Reflections on a Timeless Staple, he talks to food scientists, academics, corn breeders, journalists, and tortilla artisans to reveal the history and science behind the food. Masa harina undergoes a process called nixtamalization, where, before being milled, the corn kernels are soaked in a slaked lime solution that removes the hull. The result is ultra-fine corn flour that, when mixed with water, creates a dough called masa, the bedrock of dishes like corn tortillas, tamales, tostadas, and pupusas.
Growing up in Miami, Gaviria was surrounded by a mixing pot of Latin American cultures; masa was at the center of so many of those food traditions. After college, he worked at fine dining and farm-to-table restaurants, spaces that celebrated and elevated French and Japanese cuisines but where the Latin foods of his childhood were not well-represented. “I started thinking about masa as being this connective staple across Latin America,” Gaviria says. “It had so much mystery to it. I knew so little about it, but I consumed so much of it.”
Gaviria soon began diving into the ingredient’s backstory, the importance of sourcing, and the connection with the farmers and their culture. In 2014, Gaviria started the company Masienda, which brings carefully sourced single-origin ingredients like Chatino black beans, heirloom corn masa, and home goods like molcajetes and comals to chefs around the world. The company’s mission is to celebrate single-origin cornmeal and the rich culture surrounding the ingredient: it sells about twenty varietals of rich, nutty, and fragrant yellow, white, blue, and red corn, which it sources from around 2,000 small-hold farmers in Mexico, many of whom practice indigenous and regenerative agricultural techniques.
Gaviria recognizes the challenge he faces importing corn into America, the largest corn producer in the world. But in many ways, he sees it as a political act. “Our role in all of this is to change and hopefully impact the way others do business over time. My goal is to see as many home cooks as possible deepen their relationship with this food,” he says.
It’s part of what Gaviria calls Third Wave Masa: people taking the same approach to masa as coffee connoisseurs who can name the origin of the beans they’re drinking. “I think the best way to describe it is active consumption versus passive consumption,” Gaviria says. “It’s really putting the consumer front and center in that experience, making choices to source intentionally.” This approach prioritizes flavor and nutrition over convenience. “That to me is the end goal: the more of a connection we have to the food we consume, where it comes from, and the labor that goes into it, the more of an appreciation we have,” he says.
One of the motivations behind Masa was to create a reference book that could be a go-to resource for both home chefs and professional chefs. In it, Gaviria details 50 diverse base recipes made from craft masa, as well as replicable techniques and tools for making your own masa at home. “There was no book for cooking with masa. It’s been a very oral tradition,” Gaviria says. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the ingredient is its versatility, which the book highlights: recipes are sourced from a range of chefs including Carlos Salgado and Karlo Evaristo. From corn dogs to samosas, the dishes are modern, experimental, fun, and non-traditional. “I wanted to remove masa from its context and liberate it to play and inform other cultures and cuisines, and frankly to connect them all together,” Gaviria says. “To get folks to relate to it in their own way.”
Gaviria wants this to be the beginning of all kinds of books on masa. Just as sourdough is ubiquitous today, perhaps in the near future there will be whole sections in cookbook stores dedicated to the humble yet increasingly elevated corn flour. Soon, we’ll all be lining up at our local artisanal tortillarilla for Sunday brunch. Until then, check out this incredible waffle recipe from Masa.