Most Mexican food lovers are seeking out modernist Mexican restaurants because they have grown to love the nixtamal tortillas and tamales.

Since authenticity is important for attracting customers, many modern Mexican entrepreneurs have brought back nixtamalization; the traditional way of preparing fresh white corn into masa by soaking the grain in water mixed with a little measure of cal (a.k.a calcium hydroxide or lime) and then grounded at the site.

There are no other ingredients added, whether as preservatives or flavor enhancers, which means the fresh aromatic corn prepared into masa must be consumed immediately and not stored. Tortilla masa is finely grinded, while the tamales masa has coarser texture.

Nixtamalization an Ancient Process Originated by Mesoamericans

Mexican women, particularly matriarchs, have sustained the tradition of preparing masa the way it was taught to generations of women in the Mesoamerican region as far back 3,500 years ago. Originally, the ingredient used to make the alkaline soaking solution was wood ash, until it was later replaced by lime or cal.

Believed to have been called as Nahuatl by ancient Aztecs, early Mexicans later used the term nextamalli or nixtamalli in referring to the ancient procedure. The subsequent generations of Spanish Mexicans called the method nixtamal, from which the modern term nixtamalization was derived.

For thousands of years in traditional Mexican homes, women worked round the clock to make nixtamal by grinding soaked corn or any other type of grain, on a three-legged volcanic rock tablet called metate. A rolling pin called mano is used as grinding tool, to which water is added to the masa from time to time as needed.

The nixtamalization process made grinding much easier, since in traditional Mexican kitchens, nixtamal is not only for tortillas or tamales but for any other dish calling for ground corn or grain.

This tradition was nearly threatened by the advent of commercially produced masa which in Mexico became popular. However, nixtamalization was revived and made popular again by modern Mexican restaurateurs, since for them Mexican cuisine is not just about cooking authentic Mexican dishes. It’s also about restoring the value of Mexican culture.

In the state of Texas, nixtamalization is still in use by Mexican restaurants like Nixta Taqueria in El Naranjo and Comedor in Austin; La Resistencia in Dallas, Elemi and Taconeta in El Paso, and Xochi in Houston.