It's not easy to find a good corn tortilla in Seattle. After searching high and low for delicious, nutritious, and traditionally made tortillas, we found Perla and her husband Roman of Milpa Masa. They are setting off to change the corn tortilla scene in Seattle and WA at large, starting from the ground up. In our interview with her, she talks about the importance of the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of nixtamalization, her mission to bring back rare heirloom corn varietals to Washington state, and shares from her from childhood memories growing up in Tijuana, Mexico.
How did Milpa Masa start?
I am originally from Tijuana, Mexico, but have been living in Seattle for a long time. My family is still there, and whenever they come to visit or when I go, I would always bring back tortillas, like 10 pounds. We would freeze them to make them last. Every time we’d come back with tortillas from Mexico, all of my friends would line up outside of my house to get these tortillas.
I started talking with my husband a few years ago about tortillas. Why is it so hard to get good tortillas in Seattle? There are so many great restaurants, but not great tortillas. There are a few exceptions who nixtamalize the corn and make masa and press tortillas, but you really can’t find this type of tortillas in the city. The light bulb went on and we said let’s do it!
What does Milpa Masa mean?
Milpa means a corn field. It’s not just a corn field. It's an ecosystem and livelihood. The whole milpa thing is growing corn for your own consumption, also growing beans and squash, and they help each other, how they grow together. It is everything about the social and cultural traditions and values... These ‘milpas’ are all about that. It encompasses community, tradition, history, nutrition, absolutely everything. We love the name and what it means to us.
Tell us about the tortilla making process!
The corn is nixtamalized, cooked in an alkaline solution-- water with a small bit of lime (calcium hydroxide). The thing about it is that it is super labor intensive. The corn steeps for several hours, overnight, it rests in the solution for 10-14 hours. This process releases the nutrients of the corn. If you don’t add the lime, you are just cooking corn and not allowing it to release its nutrients. The next step is to rinse the corn, the pericarp (outer layer of the corn kernel) is removed. We then wet-mill the nixtamal between two large volcanic stones, pressing and grinding the corn and masa dough comes out. During the process of milling, you need to add water. The volcanic stones heat up and you add a trickle of water to help it from cooking or burning. After that, it is kneaded in a stand mixer to make it soft. It is a science, to find the perfect texture. Then the masa is placed at the top of the machine, there is a sheet cutter that cuts the tortillas to the size and thickness, then they go through the oven, this is where the tortillas puff and this is beautiful. This is what you’re looking for. The aroma is amazing. The neighbors can smell it and keep asking when we’ll open!
What do you look for in an amazing tortilla?
The ancient Mesoamerican way of making tortillas is the nixtamalization process. This is what a lot of tortilla bakeries aren’t doing anymore. Super industrial corn flour processing just creates a tortilla in name and shape. It doesn't have the flavor or nutrients.
How do you source local corn for your tortillas? What are your plans for the future with locally grown corn? What are some of the challenges in finding locally grown organic corn?
It is a challenge. Ideally we want to be able to source our corn here in Washington. The dry corn variety is very hard to find right now. Even though Washington produces a lot of corn, it is more the sweet corn, not the dry corn varieties that we need for the tortilla making process. The only people we've been able to find, and we've been seriously looking, is Viva Farms. Through Viva, last year, a few of their farmers are growing for their own consumption. They weren’t necessarily selling. Through the Organic Seed Alliance, they are testing different varieties of corn. All of these varieties make great masa. Not all of the masa is perfect for tortillas, but maybe great for tamales.
We’re hoping in a few years that we can be at 50% local corn. I’m an optimist and a realist. It can happen with the local interest available!
What does kinship in the context of food mean to you? How has food served as a connector for you?
There are so many things that one can say about kinship when it comes to food. I grew up in the northern part of Mexico across the border in Tijuana. In that part of Mexico, I don’t have the traditions of a ‘typical’ Mexican, compared to those who grew up in Central Mexico. I didn’t grow up that way. Tijuana was a small border town, the food tradition and culture were not necessarily available. Even though my parents weren’t originally from this part. People would move there for the access to the US. I learned to read and speak English from 3 years old from Sesame Street, which is not the Mexican tradition. Even though I grew up differently as a border kid, I still remember the flavors of my mother and dad cooking. My dad also loved to cook, all these flavors that I remember that I don’t have here. Specifically the tortilla.
Every time I feel like I form a bond with people, it’s always through food. Everyone has had a good taco and your palate never forgets, the aroma, the taste of the tortilla, the palate takes you there. This connection to people in particular, once they take a bite out of a taco. A simple tortilla with a sprinkle of salt. I don't know if it's in our DNA, genes, the memory of family, the earth, it's this visceral memory that is so poignant. It is a very humbling experience to eat it. It’s simple, profound, transcendental. It’s this connection.
What is your favorite fruit and/or vegetable? Or ideal meal?
One of the things we’ve loved is the asparagus tamale. It is basically a good cheese, the roasted asparagus, in masa to make the tamale. The corn we’ve used has been local, from Viva farms, an Abenaki corn. It is red or brown once it is cooked and ground. It is very coarse and perfect for tamales and the flavor with asparagus is amazing.
The one thing forever and a memory as a kid, is the beans! There are always good beans and tortillas. I remember being in the car with my parents to go to the mill. My dad would have a salt shaker and would grab a tortilla fresh, steaming hot. He would make bunny ears out of the tortillas, sprinkle with a little salt, and would give to us kids. We’d get home and there would be soupy beans with cheese ready. It is the epitome of comfort food.