Fad or Future

Nixtamalisation: an ancient way to buff up modern ingredients

This Mesoamerican technique is being taken beyond tortillas to a broader range of dishes.

2 January 2019
flavourgrainsLatin AmericanMexican

Unless you’re an expert in Mexican food – or have recently binged on Netflix’s Salt Fat Acid Heat – you probably haven’t heard of nixtamalisation. Boasting more than 3,000 years of history, the process is most commonly associated with the making of traditional tortillas, though it is also used in the creation of other corn-based products like tamales and hominy.

Breddos Tacos in London has proudly talked about how it incorporates nixtamalisation in making its tortillas from scratch, and Wahaca founder Thomasina Miers has also been effusive about its importance in creating a tasty tortilla.

Several chefs have been taking nixtamalisation beyond its common usage, however, experimenting with how it can affect texture and nutritional composition.

Grains, seeds and beans

Nixtamalisation involves cooking and soaking corn kernels in an alkaline solution (usually limewater) in order to remove the hull, soften the grain, reduce contaminants and increase nutrients. The resulting 'masa' (a kind of dough) is then used to make tortillas.

It has been said that the quintessential flavour and texture of a tortilla owes as much to nixtamalisation as it does to the corn used to make it – a proposition put to the test a couple of years ago by the René Redzepi co-founded Nordic Food Lab. In an effort to create an authentic(ish) tortilla with European crops, one of its researchers trialled nixtamalisation on different types of grains, seeds and legumes – among them rye, flax and peeled fava beans – at varying cooking and soaking times.

More recently, Canlis restaurant in the US state of Washington featured a nixtamalised buckwheat chip on its menu – the result of a collaboration with Washington State University’s Bread Lab.

But it’s at Quintonil in Mexico City that the process has found its most experimental outlet. Ditching grains entirely, chef Jorge Vallejo has played with the nixtamalisation of several different ingredients, including vaquita and ayocote beans.

He has even placed a nixtamalised tomato centre stage on the restaurant’s tasting menu, accompanying it solely with a sweet onion reduction. The result is a more densely flavoured tomato that is also fleshier due to relatively low loss of moisture.

With ancient grains enjoying a renaissance, ancient grain-processing methods might be next – particularly if they can offer novel textures and tastes as well as a nominal nutritional benefit.

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