Three Sisters Nixtamal's Marvelous Masa

A good taco needs good tortillas. Here’s why a tortilla made with freshly nixtamalized corn is hard to beat.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton June 23, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Michael Novak

When naturopathic doctor Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel moved to Portland from Mexico City, she found bland, chemical-filled tortillas waiting for her. So, in 2012, she and her archaeologist husband, Pedro Ferbel-Azcárate, along with chef Wendy Downing, founded Three Sisters Nixtamal, the only tortilla company in the Pacific Northwest that nixtamalizes its own GMO-free, organic corn. Demand is high. Three Sisters makes over three tons of masa every week, selling masa and tortillas at farmers markets, in grocery stores, and to restaurants including Tacos El Patrón, Tropicale, and Tamale Boy.

Nixtamalization is the millennia-old process of cooking dried corn kernels in water and limestone, which breaks down the kernel’s outer layer and unlocks its maximum nutritional value and flavor. The corn is then soaked in water overnight, rinsed, ground in a stone mill, and mixed with water to create masa, ready to turn into tortillas. Many tortilla factories skip nixtamalization, opting instead for the much cheaper maseca, an industrial corn flour. Three Sisters Nixtamal sources whole kernels from small farms in Mexico, including “land race” varieties, named because of their long history of cultivation in a specific region of land. One day, Oregon may, too, have its own land race corn. Three Sisters is working with agricultural researcher Lucas Nebert of Oregon State University to figure out what kinds of corn can thrive in its nonnative Pacific Northwest—and which make the best tortillas. Meet a few of the varieties in use at Three Sisters today.

Organic Yellow Corn “[It’s] probably the ‘corniest’ in flavor profile,” says Ferbel-Azcárate. It’s grown in small farms in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Organic White Corn This corn also hails from Chihuahua, but its delicate flavor is ideal for subtle flavors like fish tacos.

Bloody Butcher Despite having the best name, this corn, grown near Eugene, makes disappointing tortillas. Corn varieties have different ratios of hard and soft starch, and this had too much soft starch, making a sticky masa. But Three Sisters is on the lookout for another red variety. “The red corn has a nutty flavor,” he says—the strongest flavor of them all.

Organic Blue Corn This blue variety from Mexico “has a mushroomy, minerally delicate corn flavor,” Ferbel-Azcárate says.

Oaxacan Green Corn Nebert is experimenting with growing this Oaxacan corn near Eugene. It makes for promising masa. “The green corn tastes between the blue corn and the yellow—imagine that!” he quips.