The tortilla is a humble food, but making it the traditional way is both a skill and an art.
“It has to be super cheesy. Super, super cheesy, ”said Perla Ruiz, co-owner of Milpa Masa. “It has to be super flexible. It has to be tender. It has a natural sweetness from the corn. “
At Milpa Masa in West Seattle, Ruiz and her husband Roman Javier make hundreds of fresh tortillas every day and sell them directly to customers in the front room of their bakery every Saturday and Sunday. For this couple, business started out as a compromise. Ruiz wanted to open a brewery and Javier a restaurant, so they decided to meet in the middle of it all.
“I’m from Tijuana, Mexico, and one of the things we always did when visiting Tijuana was to buy lots of tortillas and raise them [to Seattle] for us and our friends, ”explained Ruiz.
“It’s funny when you actually go to the TSA or the airport, you bring maybe 20 pounds of tortillas with you. You open [your bag] and they kind of look at you and you think, ‘Seattle doesn’t have good tortillas’. And they say, ‘Okay, I have you man’ and they close it again and you go. So that’s how we started, ”added Javier.
A two-man operation, Milpa Masa’s tortilla bakery, wouldn’t be out of place in Mexico or California, but it’s an anomaly in Washington.
“Interestingly, one of the reasons is that there is no corn here in Washington, at least not for our purposes,” said Ruiz. “I think we’re number one among the producers of sweet corn, but not the corn we need for tortillas. So most of the corn is grown in the Midwest. “
For most businesses, it’s easier and cheaper to make tortillas from dried cornmeal while adding preservatives to keep them shelf-stable. Milpa Masa’s tortillas are made from just three ingredients: corn, water and lime in a complex, multi-day process called nixtamalization.
“It’s a thousand year old process of mixing corn in an alkaline solution. It started back then with wood ash and from then on we switched to lime, which is much better, ”explains Javier. “You cook [the corn] You let it steep overnight at a certain temperature, let it drip off, wash it, and from then on you can start. “
Nixtamalization causes a chemical change that turns the corn into hominy, which Ruiz and Javier grind into Masa. This chemical change is crucial because it allows the masa to come out of the batter for tortillas with the addition of water.
Not all doughs are created equal. Milpa Masa offers at least three different tortillas every weekend. Each is made from a different variety of corn and each requires a certain level of finesse, which Ruiz and Javier learned through a lot of trial and error.
“Neither of us had the experience [of making tortillas] growing up, ”explained Ruiz. “My mother grew up making nixtamal tortillas and she hated it. So it’s not something she wanted to teach us. We had to learn. “
Now Ruiz and Javier manipulate the tortillas with skilled hands, the know-how that takes thousands of hours of work with it. Your reward for the countless early mornings and late nights is the reaction of customers who stop by for a bag of fresh tortillas.
“For people who have been or lived in Mexico, or because they are Mexicans from different parts of Latin America, it just takes them back home. There’s this super deep connection, ”said Ruiz.
“It starts with the eyes too,” added Javier. “You look up [the bag], their eyes open and they smile. And they hold the tortilla, the packet, and feel it. You already know. “
“Oh, you know,” said Ruiz. “You just touch it and the feeling of touching it holds it to your chest like ‘oh my god’. And that’s just wow for me. “
“You’re like oh, it’s still warm,” said Javier. “It’s worth the hard work.”