Corn has been the staple of the Mexican diet for 7,000 years, but the advent of industrialized agriculture, which favors consistency over flavor, has jeopardized many heirloom varieties. In the past few years, however, many chefs in Mexico City have begun working to preserve these old types of maíz, along the way opening new businesses devoted to the tortilla.
Enrique Olvera is famous for his fine-dining restaurants, Pujol and Cosme, but his new spot, Molino el Pujol (Pujol Mill), gets back to basics. Traditional clay vessels and straw baskets decorate the counter, and the afternoon menu focuses on corn: elote with chicatana-ant mayonnaise, epazote quesadillas, huitlacoche tamales. “People from the city need to start thinking more about what is in the tortillas they are consuming,” Olvera says. “Not just the ingredients but the process: the people involved in production, where the corn comes from. It’s a long line you can draw.”
Another chef who’s drawing that line is Santiago Muñoz, who got his start hand-grinding corn at Restaurante Nicos. In 2016, Nicos chef Gerardo Vázquez Lugo partnered with Muñoz to open Maizajo, a tortillería named for a variety of corn in which each kernel has its own husk (like garlic, or ajo). The shop offers classes and produces tortillas for the public and for top restaurants such as Quintonil, Azul Histórico, and La Docena. “If we don’t buy this corn,” Muñoz says of the heirloom varieties, “in 20 years, they won’t exist.”
Finally, El Parnita chef Paulino Martinez realized that in order to make the best tacos, he needed to have the best tortillas, so he traveled the country to learn about its corn, which he says “is as varied as Mexico’s population.” Last year, he opened a shop known simply as El Expendio de Maíz (The Corn Store). The storefront looks like a rural home—the corn is ground by hand, and life is centered on the comal, or tortilla griddle—and Martinez hopes it will remind Mexicans that, “above all, we are still children of the corns.”