Through the Maize

Sweet Corn Tortilla, Masa Business Eyes Bigger Things

Tatemó is producing a flavorful product, and in time it might spark a tortilla revolution.

By Timothy Malcolm August 14, 2020

Corn tortillas from Tatemó are seen above the packaging.

If you've been to the Urban Harvest Saturday Farmers' Market lately, you may have spotted the little booth selling homemade corn tortillas and masa. There, behind the counter, are Emmanuel Chavez and Megan Maul, happy to serve you the products of Tatemó.

"We challenge ourselves to dig deeper and deeper," says Chavez about his corn tortilla and masa business that started about a year ago and has been heating up (tatemó is a past form of the word tatemar, meaning to roast, toast, or grill). He makes all tortillas and masa by hand from a production facility (essentially kitchen space) in Pasadena and then sells his wares at the weekly Houston farmers' market and by delivering to customers who order via email.

A few things separate Tatemó from other tortillerias. For one, Chavez is constantly changing his product. There are 64 of what he calls "landscapes" (also known as landraces, or varieties) of corn (maize) in Mexico, and each has its own distinct characteristics, including flavor. Chavez wants to showcase as many of these landscapes as possible, so he sources corn from a variety of Mexican farmers, rotating them frequently.

Second, Chavez's process includes nixtamalization, which means the maize is soaked in an alkaline solution like limewater, then washed and hulled. Nixtamalization makes the corn easier to grind, plus it adds flavor and some say it carries other health benefits (primarily by removing mycotoxins, the toxic compounds found in some types of mould that grow on cereal and other foodstuffs).

Chavez wasn't always this knowledgeable about corn. In fact, despite being born in Mexico—moving to Houston at age 11—and spending plenty of time during his teenage years at Taqueria Tepatitlan in Pasadena, the Tex-Mex restaurant his parents worked at and later co-owned, he knew nothing about the process of making tortillas and other corn products. It was only when, while he was living in Seattle a few years ago, a chef friend lectured him about the finer points of tortillas that his interest was piqued. Now Chavez talks about the harmful effects of cheaply manufactured, mass-distributed, and non-nixtamalized corn tortillas on Mexican children like himself in the 1990s with anyone who gives him the chance.

"The corn was so modified that it was just a duplicate of chemicals and was bad for you," says Chavez. "And for families it's easier to open a bag of tortillas and add water in 10 minutes than it is to get in the field and pick the corn, spend 12 hours nixtamalizing it, an hour to grind it, and another hour to cook it."

Tatemó's tortillas, however, do undergo that arduous—but rewarding—process, and the result is an insanely flavorful product. The business has gained plenty of traction both in online orders and at the farmers' market, where Chavez says he and Maul, his business and life partner, have entertained offers to expand the business with a brick-and-mortar space akin to a restaurant or café. He'd like to have a regular shop with food to order, plus a dining room with a weekend omakase-style tasting menu, and a space for tortilla-making classes.

"Things are in the works and we are very excited," he says, adding he would like to announce something by the end of the year. Whatever the next step ends up being, Chavez hopes it will help change the how we eat some of the most ubiquitous foods in our shared culture, one customer at a time.

"It's no longer just a tortilla, it's 'Where does this tortilla come from?'" he says. "The conversation starts to shift, and that's how we get more people to try it, and we can start serving more customers, and it's all very exciting."

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