Turning masa into tortillas is like tending to a newborn baby, reports Julia Moskin in The New York Times (10/2/13). The cook must constantly gauge the tortilla’s "skin tone and temperature, anticipating its needs and desires – a quasi-maternal skill that comes only with practice." "Sometimes you even have to tickle them," says Maricel Presilla, author of Gran Cocina Latina, a book about Latin American food. This involves tapping the tortilla to try to prod it into puffiness. "They are completely alive," says Maricel, who also notes that, in Latin America, it’s mostly women who work with masa.
"Girls learn from their mothers, and they learned from their mothers," she says. The significance of this is considerable, given the outsized importance of masa in Latin America. "Our people spent thousands of years growing corn, harvesting corn and making it into masa and tortillas every single day," says Hugo Ortega, of Hugo’s restaurant. Indeed, in Mexico, there’s a saying: "Without corn, there is no country." And while other Latin American foods have been "absorbed into global kitchens … masa remains stubbornly, proudly Latin, the clay that molded the food traditions of a continent."
Authentic masa is "made from nixtamal, dried corn that has been treated with alkali, like ash or slaked limestone." This "changes the flavor and aroma of corn in ways that are addictive and indelible but almost impossible to describe." The process dates "as far back as 1500 BC and Maricel says it "smells like rain on hot pavement." In any case, turning masa into tortillas is harder than it might seem, mainly because it is gluten-free and doesn’t hold together easily. Hugo, meanwhile, says that "each tortilla has a face" always on the first side of the dough to hit the pan. He says the tortilla’s face doesn’t change no matter how many times he flips it.