Featured Ingredient — By Ben on 23 January 2012
A brief introduction to corn (maize)

After a long break What’s Cooking Mexico is back! Things have been quiet around here for almost a month, but we’re ready to start posting again. In order to give the readers of this blog a more complete picture of Mexican cuisine, we’ve decided to highlight a Mexican ingredient (or other ingredients that are very important in Mexican cooking) for several weeks. We’ll write about its history, nutritional properties, cultural importance and, of course, recipes. We’ll start with the single most important ingredient in Mexican cuisine, corn or maize. Jon introduces us to this crop that has been an essential part of many American civilizations for thousands of years.

Blue corn

Corn as we know it today was first domesticated, it is believed, in Mesoamerica (Mexico) about 7,000 years ago from a grass called teosinte. No one really knows why it was domesticated, however, as teosinte was not a particularly high-producing edible plant and did not possess the recognizable kernels of modern-day varieties. Teosinte had a stalk made up of interconnecting seed pods with a very hard outer shell rather than edible kernels.

Teosinte and Modern Corn Comparison
Picture by National Science Foundation

Whatever the reasons for domestication, domesticated it was, and as it became more and more important in the Mesoamerican diet, it began to spread north and south from the central valleys of Mexico. When Mesoamericans and other Native Americans migrated to the eastern woodlands of North America about 1,000 years ago, they brought corn with them. By the time of Columbus and other European explorers reached the American shores, corn had become an integral part of Native life. Native Americans used corn in nearly every aspect of their culture. Besides a source of nutrition, they used corn husks to make sleeping mats, moccasins, baskets and dolls for children. The cobs could be burned in fires for heating, turned into darts for games, and were used in many ceremonial events as well.

Today, corn is still used in a wide variety of products. Corn-based ethanol powers cars and produces lower emissions. Cornstarch is used to strengthen clothing fabrics. Books are bound using cornstarch, and the ink of books and newspapers contains corn oil. Corn is used in the production of glue, shoe polish, aspirin, cosmetics, trash bags, cough drops, deodorant, batteries, matches and so much more. And, of course, it is still a big part of our daily diet, even if we’re not always aware of it. For example, corn syrup is used in almost every type of processed food, including cereals, soft drinks and candy. It is involved in the production of ice cream, marshmallows, and to sweeten toothpaste. There are thousands of products that involve corn, and more are being developed each year. Corn is one of our most important crops, and without it, our daily lives would be much different. Most of us would find it very difficult to live without all the many corn-based products.

The colors of corn

Picture by Thomas Aleto

However, corn itself, and the many varieties, are threatened. The number of varieties we see now pale in comparison to what used to exist in the time of Native Americans. Multinational corporations have patented specific types and have genetically modified corn varieties to maintain a larger market share. The end result is that lesser known varieties gradually get pushed out and planted less. The “Indian corn” we are most familiar with, as well as the blues and reds and so many others, may go exinct altogether, ending thousands of years of cultural and dietary significance for many people. Even corn’s wild original, the teosinte plant, is now on the brink. Almost all teosinte species today are either threatened or endangered, and some varieties exist now within only a few square miles of Mexico.

Over the next few weeks, What’s Cooking will highlight some of the different varieties of corn and their uses as it relates to food.

¡Buen provecho!

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About Author

grew up around food. His family owned a restaurant in Mexico City and he spent a big deal of his childhood helping and learning after school the art of creating delicious dishes from simple ingredients. He created this blog to share his kitchen adventures with the world.

(6) Readers Comments

  1. I love all those colorful varieties of corn! Thanks for the wonderfully instructive post and great to see that you are back.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. I cab’t wait to see what the next few weeks bring guys:D

  3. Nice article, Ben. Great photos as well. Welcome back! We’ve missed you. Saludos,
    Victoria

  4. You know I never even REALIZED that corn had varieties! I can’t wait to read your posts about them!

  5. Thank you for this article, it was really interesting.

  6. Glad to have you back Ben! Did you know that corn is called Mais in Dutch? Pretty similar to maize!

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