Wisdom from the Past: Nixtamalization of Corn

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Frugal cooking in the past often went way beyond simply trying to fill bellies. At it’s best, frugal cooks in the past made sure to fully utilize nutrition in the ingredients they used.  We can learn a lot from historical practices…and mistakes.

One example of how one, very cheap and easy practice can make a huge difference in the quality of life of many is nixtamalization of corn, a traditional practice in Mexico. Unfortunately, those across the border in the US hadn’t (and haven’t) learned to copy this practice and it has had devastating effects.

“Consider maize (corn), towering grain of the Americas, a native food that would ultimately feed billions all over the world. True, this golden kernal has a wonderful taste, fantastic yields, and incredible adaptability to extreme climates. But, as food historian Sophie Coe has explained, what really made it a superior item was nixtamalization, a process developed by women somewhere in Central American, long before the time of Jesus. To make nixtamal, women soaked their corn grains in water with lime or wood ashes from their cooking fires, loosening the tough hulls that were characteristic of ancient strains of corn. The soaking made the kernels easier to grind into meal for tortillas. Or the cook might boil the nixtamal into a puffy ricelike dish called hominy (also called posole in the Southwest). Though these techniques made for good eating, much of the brilliance lay in the nutritional chemistry: alkali from the wood ashes enhanced the protein of the maize.

How much did this process really matter? Nixtamalized maize was so much better than the unprocessed kind, wrote Coe that ‘it is tempting to see the rise of Mesoamerican civilization as a consequence of this invention, without which the peoples of Mexico and their southern neighbors, would have remained forever on the village level.’

Some millennia later, Europeans would adopt corn without nixtamalization, contributing to widespread malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies such as pellagra.”

A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone, pg xxxi

Corn was introduced in Africa without nixtamalization. Because it became a staple food for many, it caused many nutritional deficiencies. When corn is nixtamalized, it released the vital nutrient B3. This prevents the painful disorder, pellegra. Pellegra makes you develop sore skin and mouths, makes you thin, listless and could cause depression, halucinations, irritability, and other mental disorders. In reality, Pellegra can and has ruined many lives.

In the Southern states, many of the poor depended on corn, once again without the nixtamalization process. Many of them suffered the devestating effects of pellegra because of it.  While in Mexico, the poor did not suffer from it because their traditional practices saved them. It’s an important reminder of the power of cooking nourishing food using traditional practices.

“It is an ironic thought that the adoption of one simple “primitive” custom might have saved the tens of thousands of ruined lives in the Southern States.” A Diet of Tripe, Terence Mclaughlin as quoted in Nourishing Traditions.

You see, especially for the poor with limited resources, unlocking nutrients from grains, legumes, and corn is vital for well-being. When Europeans moved to America, they first survived because the Indians helped them. They would have done well to continue to learn and keep some of the Indians traditional practices, such as the Nixtamalization of corn.

And we would do well to learn from them now. It’s not to late! We can relearn these simple traditional practices. Especially if things get harder here in the US, it will be very important that we learn how to best use the food we have to best feed our family. Nixtamalization could help us do that.

For an example of how this is done, check out my recent soft polenta post. In my next post, I will be sharing more research about what Nixtamalization does. Releasing B3 is just part of the story.

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

Comments

  1. Emilie says

    I found this article very interesting. We should pay more attention to the way things have been done for many generations, there was wisdom behind these practices. I was wondering if you knew any other names for nixtamal or lime, since I live in Europe and haven’t come across any here.

  2. Rosy says

    Hominy is so good! I wish I could find it outside of a can. Maybe we can make it at home? Something to look into. If I find any juicy details I will post back.

  3. KimiHarris says

    Hi Emilie,

    YES! Good question. I will mention this again in my next post, but you can find it under the name of “pickling lime”. Many online stores that cater to home canners will sell it.

    Rosy,
    Do share what you find!

  4. Angela says

    Speaking of corn, my husband and I just watched King Corn … a feature documentary on corn production here in the United States. Very eye opening, and I highly recommend it to everyone wondering and concerned about why we have corn by-products in everything! We picked it up from our local library.

  5. says

    I made polenta for lunch today. It was good. Most of my family wasn’t wild about it, and the ones with the corn allergy had something else. But I’m really looking forward to a small piece fried in butter for breakfast.

    “Nixtamalization.” That’s one cool word. I collect cool words and that’s going near the top of the list!

  6. Rosita says

    Talking about soaking it in wood ashes made me think of some traditional food that we use from my husband’s culture. It is called traditional salt. (My husband is from Chad in Central Africa). From what I have gathered, it is made from burning certain plants and their roots (I believe), then the ashes are collected and water is poured through them and filtered out. This water is then boiled down until it becomes what looks like a chunk of salt. It is used to flavor sauces and it helps tenderize whatever meat is used in the sauce. We also take a bit whenever we start feeling sick, and it is amazing how well it works. I don’t know what all is in it, but one day I would like to test its makeup. We get a big chunk whenever we go to visit his family.

    KH: WOW! That sounds amazing! I want some. :-) Does it taste just salt then? Thank you for sharing. That is very cool.

    • lewishabben says

      Sounds like you guys made some hydroxide salts, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroxide

      When ever you burn something, all the carbon chains in plants get bonded with oxygen to become CO2 & CO; with a some hydrogen also

      This leaves behind the alkaline elements of the plant, mix them with water and you can filter out the insoluble elements. hydroxides are in the liquid.

  7. Heidi M. says

    Thanks so much for these posts, Kimi, they’re really informative!

    Rosita,

    I was so fascinated by your account that I went and did some research on traditional salt. :) What I discovered is that traditional salt is the lye from particular plants (such as corncobs). At first I thought that couldn’t be right, but when I double-checked to composition of lye it made sense: lye is sodium hydroxide (sodium, of course, being salt). I learned something new today!

    It’s amazing the things that can be done with ashes. A while back I set myself to the task of learning what people did before baking soda, and I learned that “pearl ash” was the homemade pre-curser, created by mixing ashes with water and boiling it down (potash) and then baking it until it turned white. The drawback to cooking with pearl ash instead of baking soda is that each batch differs in strength, so consistency is difficult; also, it tends to impart a bitter taste when used in recipes that call for oil–of course, since those are the two basic ingredients for soap!

    Nutrition can be quite entertaining at times.

  8. Rosita says

    Heidi,

    You are right about being of different strenghts and consistency, even color. We currently have some that his mother made, and some that his aunt made, and they are a bit different in texture and color, but seem to have the same effect in the sauces. I think they mainly use surghrum plants to make it in his area, since that is the major grain grown there.

    Kimi,
    It does taste a bit salty when you eat it plain, but it doesn’t add a salty taste to the food. Another difference from salt is you have to boil it for a while once you add it to a sauce. I can’t really describe the flavor, but if you email me a mailing address (I assume you can look up my e-mail address) I would be willing to send you a small sample. We really only use it when we are making foods that he grew up with, but I have been meaning to start adding it to some “western” foods.

  9. Emily says

    What about making hominy? Has anyone tried it, and where do you get the corn for making hominy? I have been intrigued and thought it would be fun to try it – removing the hulls and all, but I feel to ignorant of even what kind of corn to buy to make it.

  10. says

    The item Rosita describes is likely some combination of potassium hydroxide and/or sodium hydroxide. The process described is very similar to that used for making Potash or Lye. This is technically a very agressive base / caustic and can be harmful in large quantities. It is one ingredient in soap. But I imagine it is a nice tenderizer. I think some Nordic countries use lye to preserve and tenderize certain types of fish (lutefisk?).

    If anyone is interested, a great book about the history of Salt is “Salt” by Michael Kurlansky. Very, very interesting international story.

    Great site. Thanks so much for your efforts in producing it.

  11. Notan Ostrich says

    Related to traditional salt is Juniper Ash Water which is used by the Navajo with blue corn. It has the benefit of adding calcium to the diet.

    For the recipe to make Juniper Ash Water, and used in Blue Corn Dumplings. see:
    http://www.ucan-online.org/legend.asp?legend=4799&category=3

    Other ash waters are corn cob, and mesquite.

    Also of interest is:
    Intake of Nutrients and Food Sources of Nutrients among the Navajo
    http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/reprint/127/10/2085S.pdf

  12. Joan says

    Hello,
    I know this post was a while ago but I’m looking for a recipe to make traditional Hominy using potassium hydroxide from burnt wood ashes. Anybody?

    Thanks,
    Joan

  13. says

    This process of nixtamalization of corn seems to always refer to dried corn seeds. Can someone please clarify this? My primary concern is how this applies to eating fresh sweet corn right from the garden? Please email me at deangen243@yahoo.com with your comments, please!

  14. Jane Metzger says

    So does this mean that grits are better for you than corn on the cob. That would be nice, because we love grits!

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