Mexican Food: The Essentials

What to know about masa and aquas frescas

theessentials_masa_t  Masa
It goes back into the mists of history. The thick dough made from grinding and cooking dried corn, masa, has been used since pre-Columbian times. Part artifact, part everyday staple, it’s advertised on awnings and shop windows in neighborhoods throughout the city. At Amapola Super Deli & Market (pictured), a gathering place in Downey packed with everything from a carnicería to an antojito stand, it’s 65 cents a pound for the basic masa, which can be hand clapped into tortillas (or formed in a press). The kind for tamales that includes lard costs $1.05. You can even get sweet pineapple masa ($1.40 a pound). The combination may not be exactly ancient, but it still holds the promise of good things made at home.  -Patric Kuh

aguafresca  Aquas Frescas
These “fresh waters” are nature’s answer to Kool-Aid. Throughout Mexico you’ll find glass barrels of creamy horchata, made with rice milk, and jamaica, infused with hibiscus flowers. That’s just the start. At the Alameda Swap Meet (pictured; 4501 S. Alameda St., South L.A., 323-233-2764), ladles dip into drinks spiked with alfalfa and chia seeds. Cook’s Tortas (1944 S. Atlantic Blvd., Monterey Park, 323-278-3536) combines watermelon with mint and lime. La Huasteca (see page 137) features a horchata with pumpkin seeds and prickly pear. Soda doesn’t stand a chance.  -Lesley Bargar Suter

Photographs by Lisa Romerein