Ark of Taste
Masa Patties for Sonoran Flat Enchiladas
Sonoran flat enchiladas are unlike other enchiladas produced in the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, because their foundational masa harina corn cakes are prepared much like the pre-Columbian hand-patted gordita corn tortillas, chalupas or sopes.
Corn cakes or patties such as this were hand-shaped after nixtamalization, a process of treating maize with alkaline solutions of lime or ash to make grinding easier and improve nutrition and flavor. This process was traditionally done in the home, starting over two centuries ago. Over time, eggs, cheese, potatoes and baking powder have been added to the recipe. These filled patties are then fried in lard or vegetable oil on a comal or griddle until they are crisp on the outside and thickly creamy on the inside like a fritter. Folklorist Big Jim Griffith has recorded septuagenarians and octogenarians in Tucson, Arizona and Magdalena, Sonora claiming that this was the only kind of enchilada served in the bi-national Sonoran Desert through the 1930’s. After World War II, Tex-Mex and Chihuahuan-New Mexican flat-stacked and rolled thin corn tortillas were introduced in enchilada or bañada, drowned or bathed, style. Thus, the flat enchilada has since become marginalized in its area of origin, maintained in only the most traditional households and multi-generational Sonoran family restaurants.
A mixture of cheese, corn masa, egg and baking powder or wheat flour give these corn cakes some loft, and the crunchy fried exterior contrasts with the sweet, creamy, soft interior. Next, red chile sauce with oregano and salt offers a savory contrast to the sweetness of the corn pastry itself and is poured over the top. Finally, the patties are topped with grated cheese. Traditionally, the grated cheese was a white queso fresco or queso Menonita de Chihuahua, but yellow Colby longhorn cheese, similar to cheddar, is typically used today.
As of 2015, it is unlikely that the centuries-old dish based on these masa patties is served in more than twenty-five restaurants and cafes north of the border. In many of them, ‘instant” masa harina has replaced home-nixtamalized fresh masa harina.