Bolita Brings Home the Art of Fresh Masa and Tortillas

April 23, 2021

While making sourdough was becoming trendy during the pandemic, Emmanuel Galvan was diving into the complexities of another beloved food close to his heart and heritage: tortillas. Last year, he launched Bolita, a “micro molino and tortillería,” to introduce Bay Area home cooks to the diversity of Mexican landrace corn and the art of working with fresh masa.

In addition to his flourishing Instagram presence, you’ll find Emmanuel at Mission Community Market on Thursdays offering tortillas and masa in a rainbow of heirloom maíz varietals, as well as handcrafted salsas, moles, and ready-to-heat items using ingredients from local farms. We spoke with Emmanuel about the origins of Bolita, and why home cooks should roll up their sleeves and get to know the joys of fresh masa.

CUESA: How did Bolita come about?

Emmanuel: I grew up in California and had spent about 10 years in various restaurant roles in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and consulting with restaurants on their operations. But I was thinking about starting a project to recreate something that I experienced in Mexico⁠—a deep appreciation of heirloom maíz, which we don’t have that much access to in California. 

The pandemic made it clear that anything could go wrong at any moment, so I decided to leave my job and put my energy into this project, Bolita. The core of Bolita is to share landrace maíz with as many people as possible, and get people excited about masa and working with it in some way. During the pandemic, it has been interesting to see people trying all these complicated cooking projects at home, like making sourdough. I grew up eating tortillas, so I figured, this is kind of my version of sourdough. I wanted to share some of those memories with people. 

Did you have experience working with fresh masa growing up?

Growing up, all I ever knew of masa was Maseca, that dried masa flour that you just add water to. It was always a big deal when my Mom would make “fresh tortillas”—fresh, as in freshly made, not from fresh masa. My siblings and I made the bolitas, and my mom would press them. The name Bolita comes the little masa balls you make that get pressed into tortillas. I didn’t experience really high-quality masa until I was in my twenties and traveling in Mexico.

What is landrace maíz, and what makes it so special?

Landrace varietals are regional heirloom crops⁠ that have been cultivated and selected by farmers for generations. They have retained a lot of distinct identity, flavor, and color. They’re naturally diversified, and a lot have become drought- and pest-resistant through the natural selection of traits.

There is so much variety in maíz in Mexico. In the six months since I started this project, I’ve probably used 11 varietals, and that’s just a fraction. I’ll get a varietal Cónico Azul, which is blue-black varietal of maíz, and within it, there will be red, white, and yellow kernels. There’s an inherent biodiversity that happens naturally from crosspollination. They are super crops that are incredibly flavorful, nutrient dense, and primed over generations for specific characteristics. Some are softer or harder and cook differently when making masa. Part of what keeps me so excited about this project is that I never have it figured out, and other people are also becoming experts, too, through the process of continually practicing and making masa products.

How are you sourcing the maíz and working with farmers in Mexico?

I currently I get most of my maíz through a company called Masienda, based out of Los Angeles. They work with cooperatives in Mexico to make sure they are getting heirloom varietals and supporting the local economies that they work with. I’m also starting to work with Tamoa, based out of Mexico City. Francisco, the owner, directly works with each of the farms and buys surplus corn, which is very important to me. I want to work exclusively with people who are sourcing responsibly, so that the products are not taking away from the local diet and economies. At the farmers market, I try to source produce from farms like Avila Farms and Oya Organics, to make sure Latinx-owned farms in California are getting some equity and money in their pockets. 

What does your operation look like right now?

In my commercial kitchen in downtown Oakland, I have my little grinder, or molino, which is really the only special piece of equipment that you need for making masa. Right now, we’re a small two-person operation. I’m in charge of all of the masa grinding and recipes, and I have one part-time employee who helps me with packaging and tortillas. My goal as I slowly build the business is to have employees who are hopefully with me for a long time and who can retain some ownership and equity in the business.

After launching your business online, how has it been selling at the Mission Community Market?

My main source of marketing has been Instagram, so I feel like I’m reaching new people at the farmers market. It’s been a really great experience to have returning customers give me feedback, and it’s a nice way to build people’s confidence by walking them through the process. The reason I chose this market is because it is in the Mission, and one of my goals has been to make my product accessible to Latinos. Also, the Market Match program is incredibly important to me. If someone is food insecure and needing a little additional support, the program provides resources by matching food stamps at the farmers market, which allows my product to be more accessible for more people to enjoy it.

Are there common questions you get about working with fresh masa at the market? 

People are intimidated at times. They think they need experience or special equipment to make something out of masa. I always tell them that you don’t need a tortilla press; you can use two heavy books to press your tortillas. You can also make something that’s not tortillas, like tlacoyos or sopes, which you can make with your hands, or with limited to no equipment. Removing some of that intimidation has been one of the most important things. People expect a perfect thing right away, but that undermines the amount of effort and skill that actually goes into something that’s so simple. They just need to keep practicing and know that it’s going to taste delicious, even if it doesn’t look good the first time you make it. Over time you’ll get to a point where you’re comfortable making tortillas.

And if that’s still too intimidating, I have tortillas for you can buy to take home! I also offer other things that are complementary, like salsas and mole. A lot of it is just humble food that evokes memories. I’m just trying to recreate some of those memories and share them with people. 

Find Bolita at the Mission Community Market at 22nd and Bartlett Streets on Thursdays (3 to 7 pm).

Photos by Bolita.

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