A Visit to Three Sisters Nixtamal Yields Sweet Insight into Corn

Three Sisters Co-Owner Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel makes corn tortillas using traditional methods and heirloom corn varieties

Think all corn is yellow or white, and maybe blue? Think again. At Three Sisters Nixtamal in Portland, OR, a Bon Appétit Locally Crafted partner, corn comes in countless other varieties, and making corn tortillas and fresh corn masa using traditional methods is serious business.

Run by friends Wendy Downing and Adriana Azcárate-Ferbel, as well as Adriana’s husband Pedro Ferbel-Azcárate, Three Sisters Nixtamal fills an otherwise unmet need in Portland for heirloom corn products such as these. Reed College’s Executive Chef Matt Talavera brought Three Sisters Nixtamal on board as a Locally Crafted partner. The business also sells to Bon Appétit clients Columbia Sportswear and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), as well as at area farmers’ markets.

The name derives from the three agricultural “sisters”: corn, beans, and squash. When planted together, each helps the other to thrive. Small growers in Mexico supply the heirloom corn, which comes in unique varieties including green, chalqueño, Abenaki, Dakota black, red, blue, yellow, and white. All are perfect for the trio’s unusual tortillas. Adriana admits that most people are shocked that nonyellow corn even exists, and by creating a demand for heirloom types, the business promotes both the growers and the larger cause of biodiversity.

The traditional method of making tortillas involves nixtamalization, a process whereby corn is cooked in an alkaline solution, washed, and hulled. The solution unlocks nutrients in the corn, making these nutrients more bioavailable and easier to digest; adds calcium; and destroys toxins. Once the corn is soft on the outside but still raw in the middle, a machine with large round stones grinds it. The ground corn is mixed until it becomes masa, which is then cut and pressed into rounds and baked. The corn goes directly from raw to ground to dough to tortilla. A fresh corn tortilla from Three Sisters is a revelation!