Masa Hawai‘i, a New Tortilleria, Grinds Heirloom Corn for its Handmade Tortillas
Find freshly made blue corn tortillas and more from Masa at the Saturday Kaka‘ako Farmers Market.
Photos: Martha Cheng
On the first bite of the freshly made corn tortilla, warm and toasted with melted Oaxaca cheese, my friend shrugged, as if to say, “it’s fine, but what’s so special?” What a difference a story makes. For once I told her the mission behind Masa, the new tortilleria that grinds heirloom corn to make its tortillas—the only place in the state to do so—she wanted to know, and taste, more.
So here’s the story: Masa is a Hawai‘i chef’s effort to save Mexico’s deep and diverse corn culture against industrial corn flour through a from-scratch tortilla. After 18 years of working as a chef for the Four Seasons, a gig that brought him to Big Island and then O‘ahu, Ray German decided to “travel through Mexico to try to find myself as a chef,” he says. And where he came from: His dad, he says, “is like the Tapatio guy on the [hot sauce] bottle, my mom like the Cholula lady”—they are from Ahualaco de Mercado and Colima, respectively.
In Oaxaca, where he staged at a restaurant for a few months, he discovered farmers that grow more than 20 varieties of corn, and where masa (corn dough) is still made fresh at home—by soaking the dried corn kernels in water and pickling lime to soften them, before taking them to the community molino (or mill), and then pressing the dough into tortillas. It’s a tedious process that most restaurants and tortilla factories have replaced with dehydrated corn flour, where all you have to do is add 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 Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival launch in April. Masa debuted at last Saturday’s Kaka‘ako Farmers Market. Make sure to get there early—by 9 a.m., the blue corn tortillas were already sold out. I got my hands on some yellow ones (made with olotillo amarillo corn)—Masa presses each tortilla by hand, and they’re slightly thicker than machine made tortillas. Reheated in a cast-iron pan, they developed an almost fluffy interior, like polenta, so light that I finished the entire package of eight ($9) in an afternoon, eating all but one of them hot off the pan, unadorned. (The last I heaped with eggs, just for variety, I suppose.)
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.”