We have learned this month that corn is a man-developed crop that first appeared in Mesoamerica about 7,000 years ago. We’ve also learned that maize was a quintessential part of the religion, culture and cuisine of all the region’s civilizations. In modern Mexico maize is still our main crop and we observe many of the rituals (with Christian names now) that involved maize in the past. Most importantly for this blog, modern Mexican cuisine still orbits around maize (squashes, beans and chilies are as important and I’ll write about them in upcoming months).
Our cuisine has evolved for thousands of years and was heavily influenced after the Spanish conquista. The new ingredients brought from the Old World and Asia, through routes established with that continent in the Pacific coast, made their way in the daily diet of the country, but maize has remained in the center of our cuisine.
As impressive as the history of maize is, however, the crop by itself is nutritionally lacking and a steady diet of it can cause pellagra because of vitamin deficiency. Wait a minute. How, then, did maize become so important in the Mesoamerica and modern Mexican diet? How could entire civilizations of millions of people keep from collapsing due to malnutrition?
The answer lies in a single word: Nixtamal. Nixtamal comes from the Nahuatl word nixtamalli or nextamalli that roughly translates as “unformed corn dough”. It refers to the process of preparing maize (the process can apply to other crops as well) in an alkaline solution. Maize is cooked and soaked in the solution, usually limewater in Mexico, and then rinsed to be hulled and ground. There’s not an exact date on when this technology was developed, but the earliest evidence of nixtamalization was found in southern Guatemala and dates back to around 1200-1500 BC.
The first step of this process is to cook dried maize kernels in the alkaline solution. In Mexico, cal (calcium oxide obtained from lime stone) is used to prepare the solution. The kernels then sit in the limewater overnight to be rinsed and hulled the following day. Metates (grinding stones) were used to grind the maize and make the dough that would become tortillas, tamales or tlacoyos.
This simple process has a high impact on health. The main nutritional benefit comes from the alkalization. It converts the maize bound niacin into free niacin, making it available to be absorbed by the body. High alkalinity also reduces the amount of protein zein, which improves the balance among essential amino acids.
Other benefits come from the maize absorption of minerals from the limewater solution. This increases calcium by up to 750%, with 85% available for absorption, iron, copper and zinc preventing pellagra. Also, nixtamalization significantly reduces (by 90-94%) mycotoxins produced by Fusarium verticillioides and Fusarium proliferatum, molds that commonly infect maize and the toxins of which are putative carcinogens.
Lastly, the process makes maize easier to grind and its aroma and flavor are highly improved. Modern tortillerias (tortilla shops) in Mexico can be easily recognized by the sound of the tortilla machine and the aroma of nixtamalized maize that can be perceived from a block away.
Nixtamalization is still widely used in Mexico in the preparation of corn dough. Nixtamalized corn dough can be used to make different dishes, but the main product of this dough in Mexico is the tortilla. Tortilla is the name the Spanish gave to the maize flat bread that the Mexicas consumed in their daily diet. The Nahuatl name for them was tlaxcalli, but its history dates back to approximately 10,000 BC. This flat bread was invented, according to Mayan legend, by a peasant who wanted to feed his hungry king.
Tortillas were made by patting down a small ball of nixtamalized maize dough by hand, in a clapping-like motion, until it became a round, thin pancake-like bread. Then it was cooked on a hot comal (griddle) on both sides. From pre-Hispanic times to this day in many indigenous communities in Mexico, women were in charge of the Nixtamal and the making of tortillas by hand. When the nixtamal was ready they would kneel in front of a metate to grind it and make the dough for that day.
Tortillas are still a very important part of the Mexican diet. However, the nixtamalization and tortilla making processes have been modernized and automated in most of the country. Molinos (grinding shops) and tortillerias (tortilla shops) use machinery that has been developed exclusively for these processes.
To this day, tortillas are one of the main sources of nutrients for many Mexicans. Some figures indicate that a family of four can consume up to 2 kilograms (around 4 lbs.) of tortillas per day. The price of the kilogram of tortillas is controlled by the government (currently around 12 pesos or 1 USD per kilo) which makes them very affordable to low income families.
Picture by El Comandante
Meat in pre-Hispanic diet (as well as in many low income households in modern Mexico) was scarce. Although consumed, fish, domesticated turkey, rabbit, benison and other game were not as important. Proteins were obtained mainly from nixtmalized corn, beans, insects, and amaranth and chia seeds. The combination of these foods, along with squashes, chilies, wild greens, cocoa beans, honey and edible flowers made the pre-Hispanic a complete, nutritious and delicious diet.
Modern Mexican cuisine still uses most of these ingredients. Unfortunately for the country, corn is threatened. A large portion of the corn that we consume is genetically modified, imported from the U.S., thanks to treaties like NAFTA. It’s cheaper now to import corn than to produce it locally. Farmers all over the country have laid down their tools to emigrate to the neighboring country as undocumented workers, for many, the only viable choice.
However there’s hope, and that will be the topic of the next article of this series. Mexico es maíz, y sin maíz no hay país. Mexico is corn, and without corn there’s no country.
For this post I decided to learn how to nixtamalize corn. I have made tortillas before from nixtamilized corn flour when I was in Ohio (you can read about it here and here) but I had never done it from scratch. Last Saturday I went to Jamaica market and bought some dried blue and red corn, and cal for this adventure. The process was fairly easy. I diluted half a teaspoon of cal in water in a pot and then added the kernels to the lime water. I placed it over high heat until it started to boil. I immediately removed it from the heat and let it rest for 8 hours. After that I rinsed the kernels and placed them in plastic containers.
For the grinding process I enlisted the help of Lesley Tellez. She’s been living in Mexico for three years and has such a passion for Mexican cuisine that it’s contagious. I took the cooked kernels to her house and used her electric molino to grind them. This makes the process so much easier! When we got the masa ready we decided to make tortillas. The tortillas were not as pretty as some Mexican grandmas make them using their bare hands, but they were delicious. Nothing beats homemade corn tortillas made from scratch.