Tamales, tortillas and huaraches: Unwrapping the many uses of masa

While it’s the glue that binds some dishes, it also brings families together during the holiday season.

By Kristen CabreraDecember 14, 2023 3:10 pm,

Masa uses are vast in Mexican culture, and it’s almost literally the glue that holds some dishes together. But the time of year it’s most revered is around Christmas.

For más on masa, the Standard was joined by taco journalist Mando Rayo, host of the Tacos of Texas podcast. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So for those who don’t know or maybe just haven’t paid attention, what is masa?

Mando Rayo: Masa is basically dough made from corn or wheat flour, traditionally just made with water, salt, depending if you like Manteca or oil. And it’s used to make tortillas and different forms, tamales… Basically the dough base.

So it’s just a couple of ingredients, it sounds like. Is it easy to make at home or am I underestimating this?

Actually, once you get into it, it’s fairly easy. It takes time. So if you’re willing to put that time in, then after a while, if you’re a home cook, it’s actually fairly easy, all depending on how much time.

This is one of those things where you have to take the time and be with the family and cook. And it’s, you know, definitely not an all day thing, but definitely, say, one of those things that you should take your time because you’re cooking for your family.

So you mentioned family. You mentioned time. Is this why around Christmastime masa is king or are there sort of other factors that play into this?

Yeah, I think that’s part of it for sure. Because, you know, when you think about Mexican families, I mean, you’re talking about tamales season, right? And so it’s a communal type of gathering that happens where there’s definitely the masa-making and then there’s, you know, making the fillings – whether it’s meat-based, pork or beef patties, or veggie… Preparing the corn husk.

And so it’s like everybody has a job, so you all line up. Even the little ones have a job. So I think that that is definitely a way that we kind of come together and we all honor and learn from usually one of the matriarchs in the family, right? They’re the ones who are like the moms that we have that are really focusing on making sure that the masa’s done right and actually massaged to perfection.

Well, you mentioned tamales, and that is what I think of first when I think of masa. But you also said tortillas. What else has masa that are some of your favorite things to eat?

Oh, for sure.

Well, obviously, you know, the base of any taco is the tortilla. We talk a lot about that. But there’s also, like, from a tortilla you can make a tostada from the dough. You can also make chalupa or even tear up some tortillas for some migas.

But maybe some things like gorditas, also. They’re basically like sandwich pockets, if you will, stuffed with your favorite ingredients. Something similar to that is pupusas as well. They’re kind of like gorditas, but they’re actually sealed.

Like an empanada?

Yeah. Another one is an empanada. You know, you can have meat-based empanadas, you can also have sweet empanadas, like empanadas de camote – sweet potato empanadas.

It all depends on the apparatus you want to eat your fillings with, whether it’s a tortilla or sope, a huarache… And some of them are literally like it’s how you form that dough and it’s cooked on the comal. A huarache is, if you don’t know, it’s a sandal, right? So the base kind of looks like huarache, you know?

» RELATED: Beyond tamales: Here are more Latin dishes to unwrap for your holiday feasts

Is there a lot of variation in masa? I mean, do people have like a super prized recipe or is it pretty basic and everything else is, you know, the spices and other things that go in different?

Yeah. I mean, you know, I think for in general there’s a very common thread around the masa, whether you use wheat flour to make, say, like flour tortillas or corn to make the corn tortillas. But then you can get creative because you have like blue corn, yellow corn, you can have white corn.

It all depends on what you’re trying to do, how creative you’re trying to get. But, you know, in general, I would say even for tamales, it’s pretty standard to use the general recipe that calls for that corn-based masa.

All right. I have one last quick random question for you, Mando. In New Mexico, if you get both red sauce and green sauce, they call it “Christmas.” I’ve never heard that in Texas. Do you hear that around here?

No, but it’s funny because, yeah, in New Mexico – I love New Mexican food, too – that refers to the chilies. So it’s red chili or green chili. So you get both, it’s “Christmas” because the chili, the the colors are bright but, you know, not so much over here.

Over here, you do see kind of like “banderias,” where you have, like the different salsas that reflect the color of the Mexican flag, you know, the green and the white and red.

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