Gabe Erales Shares His Passion for the Heirloom Corn Movement
The Comedor chef is working to preserve traditions of Mexican corn and tortilla making
Photographs by Holly Cowart and Minta Maria Smail
Chef Gabe Erales believes that a taco is only as good as its tortilla. Passionate about preserving Mexican customs and culture, he imports heirloom corn from farmers in Mexico for the menu at Comedor. We feature Erales, one of seven incredible people making a difference in our community, in Tribeza’s December People issue and wanted to learn more about the history and benefits of using heritage corn, or masa.
“Masa refers to the traditional corn flour used to make tortillas,” says Erales, but it isn’t always made with just corn. The dough is made through a process called nixtamalization, which involves cooking corn so that the body can digest and absorb the proteins found in the grain. An ancient tradition, nixtamalization was in many ways the foundation of early Aztec and Mayan cultures, deeply influencing modern Mexican cuisine.
Erales recalls tasting a masa tortilla for the first time while working in the kitchen at Fonda San Miguel. “I saw that they were cooking and grinding the corn, and that sparked my interest in the process because the tortillas were so different from store-bought,” he says. “The first time you try a tortilla from masa, it ruins all other tortillas.”
As Erales researched the process, he discovered that only a handful of people were cooking and grinding organic, non-genetically modified corn. In Mexico, Monsanto was working to plant genetically modified corn to create higher yield crops across the country, offering small farmers millions of dollars. In response, a movement stood up to the corporation, adopting the phrase “‘Sin maíz, no hay país” as their statement of protest.
“It means ‘without corn, there is no country’,” Erales explains, “and it was their way of saying that corn makes up our diet and it’s the backbone of our culture.”
At Comedor, Erales works with an importer called Tamoa, one of the largest importers of Mexican heirloom corn. He was introduced to their founder, Francisco Musi, while working in the test kitchen for René Redzepi at his NOMA pop-up in Tulum. There, he also met Rafael Mier, who runs a seed-saving organization called Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana, traveling around Mexico to educate chefs on the culture and consumption of corn.
“Rafael came to the pop-up and opened up two suitcases with one cob of every variety of corn still remaining in Mexico,” Erales remembers. “He put them on the table in the shape of a sun, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Since then, Erales has not only worked to incorporate heirloom corn in his menus, but also to educate other chefs on preserving the tradition. He designed his own merchandise to promote the “Sin maíz, no hay país” movement, and hopes to bring Mier to the United States to introduce him to like-minded chefs.
In the meantime, he’s encouraged by the work of restaurants like Odd Duck, La Condesa and Suerte, who partner with Barton Springs Mill to use local non-GMO grains on their menus here in Austin. Barton Springs Mill found land in Texas to seclude the growth of the corn without cross-pollination, which Erales says is another great step toward changing the standard of what a tortilla should be.
“From what I understand, we are starting to utilize heirloom corn even more in the U.S. than in Mexico,” he says, “which is amazing because there are such health benefits to the process. It’s encouraging to see that the tradition will be carried on and not forgotten or industrialized.”