You probably know that corn (or maize) is Mexico’s main crop. But did you know that it has been part of our culture for thousands of years? Read on to learn 10 interesting corn facts you probably didn’t know.
1 – Corn was domesticated in Mesoamerica 7,000 years ago
The first of our interesting corn facts is that it comes from a grass called teosinte (teocintle). This 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. The domestication of maize transformed early societies of Mesoamerica. Originally nomadic and largely hunter-gatherers, they were able to establish sedentary agricultural villages. This allowed them to develop into entities of great political, social and cultural complexity.
2 – Corn became central part of the religion, culture and society for pre-Colombian civilizations
Maize was important in the religion of all Mesoamerican cultures, from the Olmec, the oldest known complex civilization in Mexico (around 1200 B.C.), to the Mexica (Aztec), Mesoamerica’s largest empire until the arrival of the Spanish. Life was closely tied to the life cycle of corn. In the cosmovision of the peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico the different stages of the development of the grain (from sowing to harvest) was similar, in the mythic sense, to the development of their societies.
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.
3 – There are over 60 varieties of corn in Mexico
The domestication of corn yielded many varieties that are still produced in Mexico. The most recognized are yellow, white, blue, red, and cacahuazintle, the maize used to make pozole. This is one of the most interesting corn facts not many people are familiar with.
4 – The Nixtamal process was developed thousands of years ago
Nixtamal comes from the Nahuatl word nixtamalli or nextamalli that roughly translates as “unformed corn dough”. It refers to the process of preparing maize 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.
5 – Nixtamalized corn dough has a lot of health benefits
The main nutritional benefit of Nixtamal 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.
6 – Nixtamalized corn dough is the base for many Mexican dishes
Including tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos, sopes, quesadillas, tostadas, etc. Without corn, Mexican cuisine wouldn’t be the same. This one is my favorite of the interesting corn facts.
7 – Tortillas are Mexico’s bread
Tortilla is the name the Spanish gave to the maize flat bread that the Mexicas consumed in their daily diet. 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.
Although the process has been modernized, Mexicans still consume large amounts of tortillas. In urban areas a person consumes around 250 grams a day and up to a 1 kilogram in rural areas.
8 – Corn is still a fundamental part of Mexico
Such was the importance of maize for pre-Hispanic civilizations that many of the rituals, beliefs and, most importantly, gastronomy related to it survived the Spanish conquista. Modern Mexican cuisine is the perfect representation of the amalgam created when the Old and New worlds collided. Our most important crop is still maize. We eat pre-Hispanic maize dishes every day with ingredients that were brought to the Americas with the Spanish.
Tamales now have lard that makes them fluffy and of lighter consistency. Tlacoyos are filled with cheese and topped with onion and cilantro and tortillas are used for tacos filled with chicken, pork and beef. In the same way, rituals where maize was very important were “Christianized”, dia de la candelaria and día de muertos for example, but the essence of the original rituals remain untouched.
9 – Corn smut is a delicacy in Mexico
Huitlacoche (or corn smut) is the corn kernels of a diseased corn ear infected by a fungus. The word huitlacoche (also spelled as cuitlacoche sometimes) comes from Nahuatl, the language spoke by the Aztecs and other civilizations of central Mexico. There’s some debate about what the correct meaning of the word is, but some experts say it means excrement of the gods. Appetizing, isn’t it?
It is considered a delicacy in Mexico and sells for considerably higher prices than regular corn. However, in the US and Europe markets it hasn’t been as accepted even though high-profile chefs and restaurants have tried to create a buzz around this ingredient. It has even been called the Mexican truffle. This is one of my favorite interesting corn facts of the list.
10 – Mexican corn is at risk
Mexican campesinos, small farmers, have seen their livelihood under attack for decades. NAFTA was the biggest blow to small farmers in Mexico. The treaty benefits international agricultural monopolies, like Monsanto, more than local and indigenous farmers. Today is cheaper to import transgenic corn from the U.S. than to produce heirloom varieties inside Mexico.
For indigenous people and small farmers maize has never been a big business and with the policies of the last 25 years the scenario has become even worse. Most families and communities that still produce maize do it for their own consumption, not for sale. That is one of the reasons newer generations don’t want to work the fields anymore.
Related: Sin País no hay maíz. An article about how Mexican corn is under attack and what some organizations are doing to protect it.