Say the words "modernist cuisine" and people immediately think of complex chemical synthetics and clouds of liquid nitrogen. But for a former acolyte of the movement, some of the most exciting "modernist techniques" aren't modern at all.
At Chef Alex Stupak's Empellón Cocina, masa starch is boiled and thickened to create the tamal colado in his Steamed Chanterelles, Epazote, Achiote, and Tamal Colado dish. The tamal, far from the steamed corn dish most diners are used to, is similar to a delicate gelée, and yet the masa starch used to make it predates the popular use of sodium alginate or xanthan gum by a couple millennia.
It's a point that Mexicans have understood for millennia, that south of the border doesn't necessarily mean fried food and tacos. While some view the tamal (or tamale, depending on the region) as street food, they are typically a home dish and have hundreds of varieties. In Veracruz, tamales are seasoned with hoja santa; in Oaxaca, they are filled with mole and black beans. For his inspiration, Stupak looked to the Yucatán, where tamal colados are often wrapped in banana leaf and then cooked in an underground pit.
"We're constantly playing around with masa because it is the most functional ingredient," Stupak says. "Masa is, more or less, the skeleton of Mexican cooking. It imparts a very intangible but very important flavor that begins to give things a truly Mexican flavor profile or focus. Masa starch is also an incredibly functional thing. You can build textures, architecture [with it]."
Masa starch is also much easier to work with than many other hydrocolloids. "The starch thickens up on you quickly, but you can never overcook it. It gels, it thickens, it crisps, it bakes. From there we have a whole playground of things we can use it for," says Empellón Sous Chef Peter Lipson, matching his boss's fervor for the starch. "Masa is the new hydrocolloid."
One of the future applications Stupak is playing with is a masa wire, similar to some of his dizzying inventions at Alinea and wd-50. He's also working on completely new versions of the masa hydrocolloid—an aerated masa chip, sort of like a vegetarian chicharrón, and even masa pasta.
Breaking from so-called authenticity is just fine for Stupak. After all, while he wraps his tamal up inside a banana leaf (a pretty classic approach in the Yucatán), he also uses paperclips to seal it up, in what Lipson jokes is "the New York version" of a tamal colado.
Stupak isn't afraid to cross some lines (he's willing to use decidedly non-Mexican ingredients, such as eggplant, in dishes), but his goal is for his dishes to taste Mexican. "I don't give a shit about what people think is authentic or not," Stupak says. "Even in Mexico, people are very opinionated about their food and their region. They might tell you in Mexico City that a Yucatan chili doesn't exist. It's not a battle. There's nothing to win."
Placing achitoe gravy on top of the tamal
Chanterelles top the tamal
Sealing the tamal with banana leaf and paperclips
The tamal, reading for steaming
Steamed Chanterelles, Epazote, Achiote, and Tamal Coladog
Tamal Colado Technique:
1. Mix together masa and water and strain through a chinois.
2. Cook masa broth over medium-high heat until it begins to thicken.
3. Bring the masa broth up to a boil while whisking constantly. Whisk in lard and salt.
Line a sheet tray with parchment and nonstick spray. Pour mixture onto the tray and push into an even layer. Refrigerate.
4. Cut into desired shape when firm.
5. Place tamal on a banana leaf. Top with achiote gravy, chanterelles, and season. Seal banana leaf, and steam.