Buy Handmade Heirloom Corn Tortillas at the Saturday Kaka‘ako Farmers Market
Natural corn leaders.
Clockwise from top left: Owner Ray German’s family tortilla press; a variety of blue, maroon, yellow and white corn tortillas; raw tortillas on a comal, or griddle.
Masa is a Hawai‘i chef’s effort to save Mexico’s deep and diverse corn culture. After 18 years of working as a chef for the Four Seasons, a gig that brought him to the Big Island and then O‘ahu, Ray German decided to “travel through Mexico to try to find myself as a chef.” His dad, he says, “is like the Tapatio guy on the [hot sauce] bottle, my mom like the Cholula lady”—they are from Ahualulco de Mercado and Colima, respectively.
In Oaxaca, German discovered farmers who grow more than 20 varieties of corn. It’s where masa (corn dough) is still made from scratch at home—by soaking the dried corn kernels in water and pickling lime to soften them, before taking them to the community molino (mill), and then pressing the dough into tortillas. It’s a tedious process; most restaurants and tortilla factories just mix dehydrated corn flour with water.
But German, along with his business partner, Dalton Harrington, are part of a movement to bring back tradition and agricultural diversity. They source their dried corn from Masienda, a Los Angeles-based company that works directly with farmers in Mexico for heirloom corn varieties including the blue cónico and the maroon bolita belatove.
Before Masa even officially started selling its tortillas, it caught the attention of Rick Bayless, who ordered 600 tortillas for the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival launch in April. Masa recently debuted at Saturday’s Kaka‘ako Farmers Market, selling blue and yellow corn tortillas, each pressed by hand and slightly thicker than machine made tortillas. Reheated in a cast-iron pan, they develop an almost fluffy interior, like polenta.
In the same way that Hawaiians have brought back the practice of pa‘i‘ai pounded between a board and stone, a tradition that once neared extinction, German hopes to bring back fresh-made masa, both for its flavor and its story: “I want to do this to make sure our families and our kids learn our heritage.”