Why It Works
- Soaking the rice for an extended amount of time yields a smooth batter.
- There is room for personal preference. A shorter fermentation produces sweeter masa, while a longer fermentation develops sour, tangy flavors which complement the sweetness of the rice.
- Fermenting the batter produces a chewy, spongy interior.
- The sugars in the rice caramelize during cooking, creating a crisp, golden shell.
A northern Nigerian specialty, masa (also known as waina) are spherical fermented cakes often served as an accompaniment to breakfasts, lunches, dinners, or as a snack. Its soft, spongy interior, crunchy shell, and sweet-sour flavor is particularly delicious when served sweet with a drizzle of honey (or any sweetened syrup) and fruits, or savory with suya (spiced beef skewers), sprinkled with yaji (the spice blend used to season suya), or alongside miya (soups) and stews.
Despite growing up in Nigeria, I didn’t learn of masa until I lived with my children in Wassenaar in the Netherlands. We often enjoyed poffertjes, small spherical pancakes made with wheat. At the time, I hadn’t heard of our own Nigerian masa, which are made in clay or aluminum pans called kasko that resemble the aebleskiver pan used to make poffertjes, but have wider wells. A few years later, I moved back to Nigeria. After reading about masa online, I traveled to Abuja, the capital, where I had my first taste of it at Yahooze, a popular suya spot. I fell in love with their sweetness and chewiness, and have spent the past several years learning how to make them.
A basic masa recipe uses a combination of soaked tuwo rice (also known as masa or sinasir, a Nigerian rice variety similar to Thai jasmine rice; long-grain converted rice can also be used), cooked rice, yeast, sugar, and salt. There are also versions made with rice flour, millet, cornmeal, wheat, and semolina. The batter can be sweetened with sugar and honey, flavored with onions or ginger, or it can even have both (if you add onions, take note that the aroma and flavor are pronounced and may not be for everyone). My favorite masa is sweet with a slight tang from the addition of yogurt, which aids fermentation. Masa batter can also be used to make the dish, sinasir―airy, flat pancakes also from the north of Nigeria that resemble thinner, larger crumpets that are enjoyed in the same way as masa.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with masa, from the classic and traditional to more modern takes. I’ve found that you can flavor and color the batter while achieving the same texture. I’ve added ground turmeric and ground cinnamon for delicious results. I’ve even used cooked masa as a gluten-free alternative to traditional wheat buns for sliders, and I’ve made great hash with cut-up leftover masa, stir-fried with suya, tomatoes, red onions, bell peppers, and served with yaji and a peanut butter dipping sauce. And, though not all my tests have been successful, I think crackers made with dried cooked masa would be another creative way to use any leftover cakes.
Making masa takes time. The great thing is that most of it is hands-off, and you can break up the steps to fit your schedule. During the process, you’re bound to notice bubbles forming—the telltale sign of active fermentation underway. In this recipe, ratios are important: adding too much water or cooked rice may lead to masa with soft, gummy interiors. My recipe strikes the right balance between the two.
The first step involves soaking raw rice for at least 6 hours until softened. To do this, I like to begin the night before, washing the rice and letting it soak overnight. This initial long soak provides an opportunity for wild yeasts to begin to eat the sugars in the rice starch, leading to a sufficient population of microorganisms to really get the batter going later. I blend the soaked rice with cooked rice (which helps contribute to chewy masa), onion (which I’ve made optional), yogurt, sugar, instant yeast, salt, and water. Blending whips air into the soaked raw rice to make a thick, creamy batter with a touch of grit when rubbed between your fingers. I then let the batter ferment for a couple of hours in a warm place until the batter has a sweet rice smell and is doubled in volume.
When cooked, the resulting masa will be sweet with aromas of cooked rice. If you want a more sour-tasting masa, you can let your batter ferment for longer. It’ll go through a rise-and-collapse cycle (you will see a ring on the inside of the bowl showing the level of the batter before it collapses) and the batter will smell yeasty like beer. The longer the ferment, the more liquid the mixture becomes, and the more bubbles form from the microbial activity. If you listen, you’ll hear it bubbling away.
Once the batter is fermented to your liking, you stir in a bit more sugar and baking powder, which helps produce fluffy masa. Whisking might seem counterintuitive, but rice starches settle over time, and this step ensures that the batter is uniform prior to cooking.
To cook the masa, you can use an aebleskiver pan, or a kasko pan if you have it. The batter goes into the wells, cooking around the edges and forming bubbles on top before it’s time to flip. The finished masa is mostly golden, with white from the rice peeking through. Crunchy on the outside and spongy on the inside, masa reminds me of sweeter, chewier, and slightly softer crumpets with the fragrant aromas of rice—sometimes with a yeasty, sourdough tang. I like to let my masa cool just slightly until I can comfortably eat them warm with some suya, yaji, sliced tomato, and red onion. Or, I'll dip them into some miyan taushe (a savory soup made with sweet orange pumpkins) and wash it down with a tall, cold glass of zobo (hibiscus tea).
- 1 cup (200g) uncooked tuwo rice or Thai jasmine rice (see note)
- Filtered water
- 1/4 cup (50g) cooked white rice
- 1/2 small red or white onion (30g), roughly chopped (optional)
- 2 tablespoons (30g) full-fat plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons (30g) granulated sugar, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (5g) instant yeast
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; if using table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon (2g) baking powder
- Peanut or vegetable oil, for greasing
In a medium bowl, cover rice with room temperature water. Using your hands, vigorously swish rice until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain rice, discarding the cloudy soaking water. Return drained rice to medium bowl and cover by at least 2 inches of filtered room temperature water. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let soak at room temperature for at least 6 hours and up to 12 hours. The rice will whiten, almost double in volume, soften (breaking or crumbling when rubbed), and may have a light, sweet aroma.
Set a fine mesh strainer over a medium bowl. Pour rice and soaking water into strainer and drain well; discard soaking water. In a high-powered blender jar, combine soaked rice, cooked rice, onion (if using), yogurt, 1 tablespoon sugar, yeast, salt, and 1/4 cup filtered room temperature water. Blend until a smooth, thick, and creamy batter forms, about 30 seconds.
Pour rice batter into a large bowl and cover bowl with plastic wrap. To make sweet masa, ferment batter at warm room temperature (about 75°F/24°C) until puffy and domed on top with a sweet rice aroma, about 2 hours. If you desire a pronounced sour flavor, continue to ferment for 6 hours longer or overnight; the batter will rise and collapse (you will see a ring on the inside of the bowl showing the level of the batter before it collapsed) with a yeasty, beer-like aroma. For both short and long ferments, the starch from the rice may settle as it stands, creating a thin, watery layer on top, and a thicker layer at the bottom. If the consistency of the batter is too thin (slightly thicker than water), whisk in 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour or rice flour at a time until the batter has the consistency of heavy cream.
Uncover bowl and whisk in baking powder and remaining sugar until fully incorporated and to aerate the batter, 2 to 3 minutes. (Whisking the batter at this stage does not remove air, rather it ensures that the consistency of the batter is uniform.) Whisk in 2 tablespoons of filtered room temperature water and set aside.
Using a pastry brush, grease each well of the aebleskiver pan with oil (which should pool slightly in each well). Set pan over medium heat and heat until oil is shimmering. Add 2 tablespoons of batter to each well; there should be about 1/8-inch space at the top of each. As the batter cooks, the bottom firms up and forms a soft shell while the top will become dotted with bubbles. Cook until the edges begin to dry and form a cooked rim about 1/8-inch thick (the center will still be liquid), about 1 minute. Using a chopstick, skewer, or spoon, flip masa as they are ready, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. (Flipping the masa while the center is liquid prevents the masa from having large holes.) Continue to cook, flipping about 3 to 4 times, until crunchy and deep golden brown all over, 4 to 5 minutes longer. Transfer masa to a serving plate or bowl and partially cover to keep warm.
Re-grease each well and repeat with remaining batter, reducing heat as needed if at risk of scorching. Allow masa to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve warm with yaji and suya for a savory take or drizzle with honey and serve with fresh fruit alongside for a sweet version.
Fine-mesh strainer, high-powered blender, whisk, nonstick aebleskiver pan, pastry brush, chopstick or skewer
Tuwo rice, also known as masa or sinasir rice, is similar to Thai jasmine rice, so I recommend using Thai jasmine if you can’t find it. Long-grain converted rice can also be used.
The recipe can be halved (if you have a small blender) or doubled.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Drained soaked rice can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
The blended rice mixture in Step 3 can be prepared ahead of time without the yeast and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. When you’re ready to continue with the recipe, stir in the yeast and proceed to Step 4.
Masa batter can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. It may thin and sour over time. To thicken, whisk in all-purpose flour or rice flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the batter has the consistency of heavy cream.
Cooked masa can be stored in an airtight container for up to 7 days at room temperature. To reheat, cover with a damp paper towel and reheat in the microwave until hot and soft, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.