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Two hands mashing purple potatoes and blue corn masa in a silver bowl.
Chochoyote dough, mashed by hand.
Tim Evans/Eater Twin Cities

The Earthy Treasure of Oro’s Purple Heirloom Corn Chochoyotes

An up-close look at the making of Oro’s heirloom masa dumplings, and the traditions — and politics — that run through them

Justine Jones is the editor of Eater Twin Cities.

Oro by Nixta’s chochoyotes aren’t the typical golden dumplings you’d find in a bowl of tesmole de pollo or a Oaxacan black bean soup. They’re purple, made with a mash of purple Peruvian potatoes and blue corn masa — a cónico azul corn from Jocotitlán, in the State of Mexico. Chef Gustavo Romero usually makes the dough using a mixer, but today he and his mother, Teresa Veytia Avila, are doing it by hand, and the violet and slate colors blend to a brooding twilight shade. When the chochoyotes are fried, Romero says, the starches pull to the exterior, creating a craggy shell. They’re served in a pool of earthy salsa de venas.

Chochoyotes are one of the many masa dishes that chefs Kate and Gustavo Romero added to their menu when they expanded Nixta, their Northeast Minneapolis tortilleria and takeout operation, into Oro, a full-service restaurant, this summer. They do about 80 to 90 orders of chochoyotes a week. There are empanada-like molotes on the menu, too, and stout gorditas stuffed with chicharron and avocado salsa. There’s a blue corn tamale as big as a brick, stuffed with wild boar and crowned with a bright mole de frutas that tames the gamey meat. There’s a tlayuda — that crunchy Oaxacan staple served widely on the streets of LA — broad as a sun hat, loaded with beans, beef salpicon, and tatemada salsa. “A lot of these dishes are the stuff that you’d eat at any mercado back home,” says Gustavo. “They’re things that I ate my whole childhood.”

And, of course, they’re all made from heirloom corn masa. It’s not just the ample Mexican menu that makes Oro one of Minnesota’s most significant new restaurants of recent years — it’s what the Romeros do with corn, that luminous crop ensnared in a net of transnational trade, politics, and tradition. When Nixta launched in 2020, it was at the head of a wave of heirloom corn dishes hitting Twin Cities restaurant menus: Sooki & Mimi’s mushroom birria tacos; Owamni’s blue corn mush; Petite León’s heirloom hominy pozole. At Oro, the Romeros have extended their mission — helping preserve Mexico’s 59 remaining heirloom corn varieties — beyond the tortilla, to a whole roster of masa-centric dishes.

Nixta has always been an educational enterprise: The Romeros are half chefs, half storytellers. At Oro, Gustavo often runs food, bestowing tables with chile-dusted esquites and staying to chat with diners about Nixta’s mission. “We serve 600 people a week, and my hope is that I get one a week,” says Gustavo. “And if I can open for a year, or 10 years, then the change happens.” To anyone who’s been paying attention to Nixta’s work, the story is familiar: Corn, first domesticated in Mexico almost 8,700 years ago, is inextricable from the country’s identity, history, and heritage. Heirloom corn varieties — passed down from ancient farmers to the present, carefully adapted to different climates and soils, their kernels a rainbow of blue-black and strawberry-rose and yellow-gold — are threatened by the industrial white corn that dominates Mexico’s market. (Not to mention cheap GMO corn imports from the U.S., currently the subject of an escalating NAFTA trade dispute.)

Gustavo Romero and his mother, wearing black aprons, stand in a small kitchen peeling purple potatoes.
Gustavo and his mother, Teresa Veytia Avila, in Nixta’s kitchen.
Yellow kernels of corn soaking in lime.
Nixta’s corn, nixtamalizing.

Nixta’s goal, then, is to help create a market for heirloom corn varieties. And it seems to be working. The heirloom corn renaissance of the past several years — driven by farmers, activists, chefs, tortillerias, and companies like Masienda and Tamoa — have indeed increased demand, raised prices, and made heirloom corn a more profitable crop for small farmers.

Still, the budding market faces certain challenges. Maseca — the instant masa harina produced by Mexican multinational Gruma, which also owns Mission and Guerrero tortilla brands — is significantly cheaper than heirloom corn masa. (The Mexican government subsidized Maseca with millions of dollars in the ’90s, fueling its market takeover.) The Romeros strive to make their food as accessible as possible, but Kate puts the price difference in a larger context. “We should all be striving to treat tortillas like we treat bread,” she says. “Bread prices have gone up over the years, and we’re now all accustomed to bougie, fancy bakeries. The point that Gusto always makes is that people are still looking at Mexican food like they kind of look at the people, in this country — as cheap. Culturally, it’s like, of course we’re going to pay more for a baguette.”

Plus, cheaper tortillas have unseen costs. Industrial corn is high-yield and high-input, meaning it requires large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that degrade ecosystems. Monocrops have seriously reduced agricultural biodiversity — and scientists are worried that’s a big problem in a rapidly changing climate. “I think that the conversation that we should have is, when we’re living in a world where everything is so expensive, how do you think these things are so cheap?” Gustavo says. “Somebody’s paying for it.”

And beyond aspects of taste (if Maseca is neutral and vaguely corny, heirloom masa runs the gamut from sweet to earthy to ferric), Oro’s corn is nixtamalized, a process of soaking the kernels in lime that helps humans digest and absorb their nutrients. It’s an ancient tradition: Mesoamericans invented nixtamalization 3,500 years ago. “If you want to understand culture and people, you have to look at what they eat,” says Gustavo. “And you have to understand that a lot of that was a necessity, especially with ethnic cuisines. Now we have the luxury to do this because we want to, but at one point, people had to do this because that was all they had.”

Take an inside look at the making of Oro’s chochoyotes with heirloom corn and purple Peruvian potatoes.

The hands of two people peeling purple potatoes above silver bowls.
First, Romero and Avila boil the Peruvian potatoes. Their skins slake off easily.
A bowl of peeled purple potatoes.
Peeling the potatoes adds to the chochoyote’s smooth, pillowy texture.
Gustavo Romero tears off hunks of the blue corn masa and adds it to the bowl of mashed purple potatoes.
After mashing the boiled potatoes, Romero tears off hunks of the blue corn masa and adds it to the bowl. Typically, chochoyotes are made with just masa harina, water, salt, and a bit of added fat, but the potatoes add a silky density to the dough.
Gustavo Romero mixing together mashed purple potatoes and blue corn masa in a silver bowl.
Romero usually mixes the dough with a mixer, but today he’s doing it by hand. A few little morsels of potato remain unmashed, adding textural surprise.
After Romero scoops the dough into little balls, he makes a dimple in them with his pinky.
Chochoyotes have a signature dimple at their center, giving them a doughnut-like shape. Here, after Romero scoops the dough into little balls, he makes the dimple with his pinky.
Gustavo Romero holds a baking sheet with six chochoyotes and places others in a fryer basket.
Once the chochoyotes are formed, they go into the fryer. Romero says that the hot oil pulls the chochoyote’s starches out to their exterior, giving them a crispy, craggy shell.
Chef Gustavo Romero in the back of the kitchen, taking plates off a shelf.
Romero, grabbing plates from the kitchen. Nixta’s space was formerly an acupuncture studio.
A hand holding a spoon spreading a pool of orange salsa de venas on a light green plate.
Oro’s chochoyotes are served alone, in a pool of earthy salsa de venas.
Six chochoyotes in salsa vena topped with greens on a light green plate sitting on a table.
The chochoyotes has been one of the most popular masa dishes on Oro’s menu, Romero says.
Hands slicing chicken on a yellow cutting board.
Oro also serves plantain and masa chochoyotes pollo con mole.
Pieces of chicken, plantain chochoyotes, and greens in a small pool of dark mole.
The plantain chochoyotes have an added starchy sweetness, which complements the fatty bites of chicken roulade and chocolately mole.
Gustavo Romero and Teresa Veytia Avila wearing black aprons with yellow ties, standing with their arms around each other and smiling.
Romero and Avila in Oro’s dining space.
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