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Berkeley's Bolita Celebrates the Delicate Art of Mexican Masa

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handmade tortillas using purple masa are prepared on a countertop
These purple tortillas are a signature at Bolita Masa. (Emmanuel Galvan)

For Emmanuel Galvan, the founder of Bolita Masa, turning raw corn into maize dough is part of an ancestral magic.

“It’s the humble backbone of [Mexico],” says Galvan, whose Berkeley-based pop-up specializes in Mexican masa. “Corn allowed the Maya and Aztec empires to grow to their sizes as an incredibly important crop. There is so much mythology around it, and it’s instilled in being Mexican. I want to shine a light on that and the work it takes because making masa is fucking hard.”

How hard? Start with the fact that he begins by choosing from at least 13 corn varietals at his disposal — each with their own color, texture, flavor and purpose — hailing from wildly distinct regions of Mexico. On some days, Galvan and his team might handle over 200 pounds of corn, from bruised shades of blue and dusky purple kernels to the eternally glowing yellow of classic elote. Alchemizing this colorful crop into masa is as much a delicate art as it is a calculated science.

tri color tortillas (yellow, blue and purple) are displayed on a tan plate inside the Berkeley kitchen where they were made
These tri-color tortillas are displayed inside the Berkeley kitchen where they were made. (Emmanuel Galvan)

The 28-hour process involves a meticulous amount of measuring, weighing, boiling, soaking, softening and nixtamalizing that ends with a grinder made of volcanic stone crushing the wet, calcified kernels into fresh masa. The result is a nutritious staple in the Mexican and Central American diet that has become a literal foundation for culinary sustenance, forming the base for tamales, tacos, tlayudas, tetelas, tlacoyos, tostadas and more — including foods that don’t start with the letter “T,” such as pupusas.

Bolita, which launched in 2020, sells their pre-packaged masas, as well as some of the Bay Area’s best salsas and moles, at the Mission Mercado farmers market in San Francisco. And the business is now expanding to Oakland’s Grand Lake Farmers Market on Saturdays. For Galvan, working with Tamao, an ethical corn supplier in Mexico City, is a huge reason he can continue to operate. Tamao’s owner, Francisco Musi, maintains close partnerships with farmers around Mexico to bring in a diverse array of corn from 11 states — each with its own unique properties. As Galvan notes, Tamao sells strictly surplus produce that does not impact the local needs or economy in Mexico and de-prioritizes any U.S. demand.

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Most importantly, Galvan deeply honors what masa represents — and its holy place at the top of the Indigenous American food pyramid. The name Bolita comes from a varietal of Oaxacan corn, the bolita, which is round and sturdy, and is often used for making the largest tortillas. But it also reminds Galvan of his roots in Napa, where his immigrant father worked in the local vineyards. His mother would bring home commercially-made masa from the supermarket and have him and his siblings roll it into a ball (or “bolita”) to be pressed into tortillas.

Though Galvan prides himself in being able to sell some of the Bay Area’s freshest scratch-made masa for customers to take home as is, he can also throw down in the kitchen with his team of cooks. That’s because Bolita Masa also provides hot meals as a roaming pop-up that embraces various masa-based dishes.

a Mexican American chef smiles inside the kitchen where he makes masa from scratch
Emmanuel Galvan has been perfecting the delicate art of Mexican masa in Berkeley. (ICA Fund/Cayce Clifford)

One must-try for the uninitiated is Bolita’s tetela, a classic Oaxacan snack that Galvan describes as a “simple triangular pocket of masa filled with black beans, gooey quesillo and hoja santa.” For his upcoming one-off pop-up at Birba Wine Bar on Aug. 27, Galvan is preparing a sweet corn tamal with strawberry chamoy, along with a savory tamal stuffed with Jimmy Nardello peppers and quesillo. He tells me there will be four more masa-based dishes in the mix, too. With its newly acquired kitchen in Berkeley, Bolita seems to have found the right recipe.

“It’s an ingredient I’ve always been excited about,” Galvan says of his masa-based cuisine. “I’m not doing anything new. People have been using maize to make food for centuries. But I hope to show the importance of these ingredients as something that can be valued.”

Bolita Masa sells pre-packed goods at Mission Mercado (84 Bartlett St., San Francisco) every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Grand Lake Farmers Market (746 Grand Ave., Oakland) on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Bolita  also appears as a regular food pop-up at Hammerling Wines (1350 Fifth St., Berkeley) every first Friday of the month from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. and will be serving food at Birba (458 Grove St., San Francisco) on Sun., Aug. 27 from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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