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.
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.