One recent fall morning, I approached the warehouse for the Maizajo tortilla brand—located in an industrial neighborhood in the northwest outskirts of Mexico City—expecting a huge, bustling production facility. Instead, I found one room with a tortilla press and a solitary woman meticulously, hypnotically working by hand—kneading the thick masa (or dough), inserting it into the machine, and placing the resulting thin discs on a piping hot comal to cook. By the time I left an hour later, there were about 500 tortillas wrapped in paper and ready for delivery to some of the city’s top restaurants.
Maizajo debuted in 2016 with a mission of making tortillas using corn native to Mexico, while employing the ancient—and time-consuming—process of nixtamalization. The practice entails soaking corn in an alkaline solution before grinding it, which makes tortillas more nutritious and easier to digest.
“A lot of Mexicans think that being a tortillero is not something of value. We want to make people proud of their corn and to want to eat tortillas fresh from a comal,” says Santiago Muñoz, who cofounded the company with Mexico City–based chefs Gerardo Vázquez Lugo of Restaurante Nicos and Eric Daniel González (formerly of Fonda Mayora). While Maizajo currently only sells directly to restaurants—more than 60, and counting—it is planning to open the brand’s first combination tortillería and taqueria this year in Mexico City’s Cuauhtémoc neighborhood.
At a time when most of the country’s tortillas are being made with industrially produced corn flour, Maizajo’s mission of championing heirloom maíz varieties is more important than ever. And luckily, it’s not going it alone; over the past few years, a handful of Mexico City–based businesses have also joined in the fight to help save the country’s most cherished ingredient—and to aid farmers in the process.
The Demise—and Rise—of Heirloom Corn in Mexico
According to Francisco Musi, the cofounder of Tamoa—a three-year-old company that sources corn from local farmers and provides it to restaurants in Mexico, Europe, and the United States—native corn first became endangered during the Green Revolution in Mexico in the 1960s. “Hybrids came to Mexico, with the promise of high yields and higher returns for farmers,” he says.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) added to the problem in the 1990s by flooding Mexico with corn imported from the United States, which, in turn, hindered small local producers from being able to sell their own (more expensive) crops.
And then there was the broader industrialization of tortillas. “The flour maker demands a very homogenous corn—the whiter the better—so farmers stopped planting the blue and red varieties,” Musi says. “It was good because there was a market for their crops, but on the other hand it promoted standardization over biodiversity.”
Today, thanks to growing demand, diversity is resurfacing: 13 million tons of heirloom corn are grown annually in Mexico, and while the number of existing varieties changes from year to year, there are currently over 60 kinds represented. Farmers and their communities consume almost half of that production, which is why Tamoa only buys surplus. “We’ve been careful about this since the beginning,” says Sofia Casarin, Musi’s partner in business and life. “What if you create this demand for a product and then the farmers can’t eat it because it’s now a commodity?”
Mexico City’s Restaurant Scene Embraces Heirloom Corn
Masala y Maiz, a restaurant in Mexico City’s San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood that blends the flavors of Mexico, India, and East Africa, currently sources four types of corn from Tamoa. “Corn represents everything for Mexicans—it’s who we are,” says chef Norma Listman, a Mexico native and co-owner with chef Saqib Keval. “If we erase corn then we erase our identity. That’s the fear I have, and that’s why we’re careful about what we buy and why we buy it at higher prices. I want the people in the countryside to have work.”
Currently, the restaurant serves a number of corn-based dishes, including tetela, a triangle-shaped tortilla pocket filled with blue crab and topped with soft-shell crab. And for breakfast, there’s a hearty porridge made with coconut milk. But, Listman says, “The plan is to keep adding more and more until they take over the menu.” This winter, Masala y Maiz will install a working molino, or mill, upstairs so that the restaurant can grind and nixtamalize in-house and even sell dry products like polenta and corn flour.
Chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol fame had the same idea when he opened Molino El Pujol in April 2018. The tiny space in Condesa has minimal seating and a short menu of corn-based items; its goal is to produce tortillas and masa made with black, yellow, white, and red varieties of corn sourced from Oaxaca. It sells up to 1,000 tortillas and 18 pounds of masa per day to the public and provides Olvera’s restaurants with a combined 187 pounds of masa daily.
“I see how people know the difference between instant coffee and drip coffee, but for some reason in Mexico, the conversation about tortillas has never been like that,” Olvera says. “But we are not trying to create a luxury tortilla. We are just trying to make the best tortilla we can, and that starts with the corn.”
Like Molino, Cintli—an organic tortillería in the Roma Norte neighborhood—puts the nixtamalization process on full display. “I wanted people to come in, maybe have a quesadilla or an atole, and watch the tortillas being made,” says owner José Castañón, an advertising cinematographer who opened the shop in November 2017 with his brother.
The idea struck while he was shooting on location in southeast Oaxaca. “I lived with a family for a while and got to see the relationship between the people and corn—the milling, the tortilla making, how they received energy from eating it,” he says. “In the city, people don’t seem to care where their tortillas come from. I didn’t like that and thought with a little work and research, I could help bring this special product to the city.”
In addition to enchiladas, tamales, and other menu items (even ice cream) where corn takes center stage, Cintli uses three types of corn from Tlaxcala to make its tortillas and incorporates unexpected “superfood” ingredients like quinoa, hemp, and amaranth.
The Plight—and Future—of Mexican Corn Throughout Mexico
Despite his success, Castañón wishes his product was more accessible to all socioeconomic groups. “Sadly, we’re catering to the middle and upper classes,” he says. “The price of regular Maseca tortillas is around 13 pesos per kilo, so blue-collar people can’t buy from us. I know they need to keep costs low, but they’re getting an entirely different product—and not just the flavor, but the nutritional value and the cultural value.”
That so many people don’t value or understand the cultural significance of corn is one of the driving forces behind Organización de Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, which began three years ago as a Facebook page created by Rafael Mier. Today, it has more than 350,000 followers, and Mier has made it his life’s mission to educate farmers, chefs, cooking schools, and anyone with an interest about heirloom corn’s plight.
“I want to make people aware that Mexico is losing its tradition,” Mier says. “We have a program to recover endangered corn, working with growers and letting them know they are the guardians of these important seeds. These corns have been around for 6,000 years and nobody is paying attention to them.”
Thanks to the work of Mier, Tamoa, Maizajo, and the rest, that’s changing—and more people are starting to realize what is at stake. “Projects like ours are a call to action,” Casarin says. “But while we are contributing to consumption, by no means are any of us saving heirloom corn. If there’s anyone saving it, it’s the farmers.”
And it’s also the farmers who make the efforts of these projects worth it. “When I have a meeting with a farmer and his family, and I shake their hands, see their smiles, and they invite me to their table, it’s obvious that the impact on their lives is immediate,” Musi says. “You can see that something is happening.”