Meet Three Sister’s Nixtamal

One contemporary writer has said, “We eat so much corn that, biologically speaking, most Americans are corn on two legs.” What if, instead of eating the byproducts of corn, we began consuming corn again in purer and more delicious forms? What if we gave corn back some dignity? Three Sisters Nixtamal, an organic corn masa and tortilla making business based out of Sellwood, has just this vision. Read the interview below with the owners, Wendy Downing and Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel, to learn about how they incorporate the tradition of corn in the Americas into their business and how you can incorporate the power of corn into your own life.

How did you meet each other and form the idea of Three Sisters Nixtamal?

Wendy: We met in prenatal yoga ten years ago in Sellwood. I have a chef background, and Adriana has a naturopath background. Adriana went to Mexico six or seven years after we had become friends and inherited her aunt’s tortilla cutter and bought a small stone grinder when she was there. Upon her return, she asked if I wanted to go into business with her. We starting selling our products in July of 2012 at the People’s Farmer Market and not long after at the Portland Homestead Supply.

Is that tortilla cutter still in operation?

Adriana: No, but I still have it. It’s a simple cutting machine— we picked up the tortillas off the belt and cooked them on a flat-top grill. Now, we have two machines that do all this in one.

Where did you learn to make corn masa and tortillas?

Wendy: We learned this process by researching on line and in books and then going to businesses in Portland, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and in Mexico that are still making their tortillas and fresh masa the traditional way.

Adriana: Nixtamaliztion and tortilla making has been done for thousands of years in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. The cooking and soaking whole dried corn kernels in water, salt, and lime (an alkaline, calcium hydroxide, not citrus lime) is a nutrient-enriching process discovered over three thousand years ago by the Indigenous people inhabiting what is now southeast Mexico and Guatemala. Everyone used to cook corn at their house and grind it by hand or take it to a local mill, but with modern times and the industrialization of the food system, people are mostly buying masa or tortillas at grocery stores or tortillerias and it is becoming more prevalent to use the dried tortilla flour instead of fresh masa.

Adriana: You see, they’re cooking blue corn, white corn, and yellow corn in these vats. She’s mixing the corn so that it will cook evenly. We can’t digest the nutrition in the corn without this cooking process; it unlocks the nutrients.

To cook it properly we have to taste it, check the temperature, and check how it feels to really say if it’s ready or not. When the kernels are cooked they soak overnight. The next morning we drain and rinse the corn and put it through a wet grinder. Our “Molino” has one fixed stone and another stationary stone so you can adjust the stones for the coarseness of the grind. We do custom orders for restaurants or individuals based on their desired grind for the corn. After we grind it, we mix it in the mixer. Masa needs to be mixed for the starches to join together. We then add water and a little bit of salt, and then it is ready to be made into tortillas or packed into blocks for people and restaurants to make their own.

Where do you source all of the corn?

It varies depending on what is available. Our blue corn typically comes from New Mexico and Mexico. The white and the yellow corn come from Illinois or Texas. We used to get it from Southern Oregon and Northern California, but the quality varied and that particular distributor preferred working with larger companies. It can be challenging for small companies to find a constant source of organic corn since the corn is harvested in the fall and then stored for the rest of the year. Sources have to change as the availability varies.

How would you differentiate yourself from other tortilla products on the market?

Most people now use masa harina or maseca at home, which is an industrially-made dried tortilla corn flour. The flavor and texture is not the same. We cook the corn kernels, grind them, and do not mix them with any flour. Most tortilla companies use this dried tortilla flour because it is easier, more consistent and takes less labor and expertise. Some companies mix the dried flour with fresh masa for a more standard and cheaper product. We use only 100% freshly nixtamalized organic corn masa with no added preservatives— just four ingredients: whole dried corn, water, lime (calcium hydroxide), and salt.  Our way costs more. Corn production is subsidized by the United States and the company that makes the tortilla flour is subsidized by Mexico so there are two subsidies, and it’s really, really cheap. People might choose the tortillas from maseca because it’s less expensive, but once people taste the difference between our tortillas and the others, that’s when they are like, “Wow, this tastes better!”

Do you supply specific restaurants in the Portland region?

Yes!  La Taq, La Panza Café and Stella Taco use mostly our masa and tortillas.  We are also on the menu at two of the ChaChaCha! restaurants,  Blossoming Lotus, Pono Farms at the Portland Farmers Market, Irving Street Kitchen, Bijou, Groundbreaker, American Local and Paragon. Our tamale masa is on the menu at Por Que No and Sarah’s Tamales at People’s Co-op Farmers Market.

There is a new food cart here in Sellwood, D.F. Fresh, and they are making tlacoyos, which almost no one makes in the United States. Tlacoyos are usually made with blue corn masa, and they are stuffed with beans, Mexcian ricotta, and favas or nopales. D.F. Fresh is making market type quesadillas out of our masa. It’s not easy to find 100% nixmatal.

For people interested in making their own tortillas at home from your masa, what is your best advice?

A lot of people buy the tortilla flour masa and have a hard time getting the right consistency for making tortillas. It is easier to achieve the right consistency and a softer tortilla with fresh masa. If you have a tortilla press, you put the ball of masa between two plastic bags in it, press it as thick or as thin as you want, and then put the tortilla on a preheated griddle on medium to medium high heat. Put your tortilla on the griddle for thirty seconds. When the edges began to turn up just a bit and the color becomes more opaque, it is ready to flip the first time. After that, you wait a minute and then flip it again, and usually it puffs. If the tortilla hasn’t puffed, you should keep it on the grill for a bit longer. When you are preparing tortillas for tacos, you want it to puff because the steam inside the air bubble is going to keep your tortilla moist and softer.  If you can cook a pancake, you can make a tortilla.  It just takes one extra turn.

Can you use a rolling pin instead of a tortilla press?

Yes, it will just be harder and less even. When I lived in Spain, I didn’t have my press, so I used to press my tortillas between books. You can also press it by hand, but it will be thicker, more like a gordita or sope.

Masa is used for more than just tortillas. Its flexibity is the best thing about it! You don’t have to do just tortillas, you can make sopes, gorditas, tlacoyo, use it with other ingredients for tamales or pupusas. You can do so many things.

How often do you teach classes at the Portland Homestead Supply?

Once a month. We teach participants how to make tortillas, sopes, and gorditas. It’s really fun because we bring beans and salsas, so you get to eat everything you make! In most cooking classes, you sit down and observe. Here, no, everyone is making their own things because I want them to be able to go home and do it.

Is your masa available at most markets that sell your tortillas?

The fresh masa is more perishable than our tortillas and people are not familiar with it or sometimes don’t want to take the time to make their own tortillas.  About half of the stores stock our masa as well as our tortillas.  Portland Homestead was the first store to sell our products so you can find it here or if you can special order masa if you would like a larger quantity or a coarser grind for making tamales.

How long does the masa last?

Ten to twelve days. Longer if you don’t mind it fermenting a little bit.  It’s ok if it’s a little fermented. We make  fermented masa and corn beverages in Mexico like tequino.

What is your next step as a business?

I would love to be more accessible to some Latino stores in the community. We are reaching out to make connections to church groups so they can provide healthier food to their communities. I wish that we could be slightly subsidized so we could supply healthier food to a wider customer base. Some people shy away from the word organic, but it is better for the planet and the people. Our people have been eating tortillas for thousands of years, and now they are ingesting all of these chemical preservatives in their tortillas and eating non-organic. I would love to be able to provide something healthier for them.

Our goal is to provide great food and bring the spirit of the corn to everyone. Some people in the U.S. have a preconceived notion that they don’t really like corn tortillas. When they try ours, they say “Oh, wow, I didn’t even know that they tasted that good.” Our tortillas have a better texture and taste better because we don’t use chemicals, and we are treating the corn the way it has been treated for thousands of years. In Mexico, we have songs that say without corn, we are not people. We are not a nation without corn. So part of our business is bringing respect to the corn again. We would like to educate more people about why we are doing this and why they should choose this product.

How do you see your work fitting into a larger homesteading movement?

Corn is a grain of the Americas. Learning to utilize it the way it should be used is bringing back who we are. We are teaching people how to use the fresh organic corn masa so they can use it to make their own food at home and teach their children. Our kids love making their own tortillas. I have customers who tell me that making tortillas has become an activity that brings their family together.

We want to teach people that making tortillas is something you can do! It’s not that hard. That’s why we began offering the masa. Not only is it more economical, once people try it out, they discover that it’s not that hard to prepare  tortillas at home. Our traditional tortilla making process is bringing back knowledge that has been lost through the industrialization of our food system.