It’s virtually impossible to travel around Latin America without paying proper homage to one of the region’s most emblematic crops: maize or corn. Originally domesticated in Meso-America, corn is a staple in Latin American cuisine. However, the yellow varieties found in the United States do not compare to the wide range of colors, sizes and shapes you can find in the rest of the region.
However, corn is not only part of your pantry or a great vegan snack (popcorn, anyone?). It also has great cultural and social value. First of all, it allowed the survival of hundreds of indigenous communities. It became a trading item, a source of legends and myths, and a spiritual source of sustenance. And it goes further. Generations of artists, writers and performers have made it the center of their art.
Even though people consume corn in one way or the other, there is little people know about it. In this short blog, we’ll cover some of the most important facts about this grain.
Corn is such a flexible ingredient and can be consumed by anyone, even with strict dietary restrictions.
The Science Behind the Tortilla
Corn is a very versatile food and can be found in every way possible, from the classic tortilla to more elaborate dishes using corn-derivatives. But let’s focus a while on the tortilla. Fresh corn tortillas are a warm hug to your stomach, and require only masa and water. That’s it. You have a healthy, gluten free meal. However, making the perfect tortilla does require a bit of background knowledge.
To make corn tortillas, you need masa - which is basically just corn dough (or flour) and water. Although some people would tend to think masa and cornmeal are similar, they are actually very different creatures. Masa is ground from corn kernels that have been soaked in limewater. This process, called nixtamalization, consists of changing the physical structure of the corn by passing it through an alkaline solution.
Nixtamalized corn is physically softer and contains more nutrients, which explains why tortillas made in Central America and Mexico are different. This is why pupusas have a very different flavour and texture to their cousin, the arepa. Masa harina, or nixtamalized corn flour, can be found in the baking aisle or the Latin American section of most supermarkets.
Maíz Pujagua: Costa Rica’s Own
Costa Rica has its own variety of corn known as maíz pujagua. It is very similar to regular yellow varieties, yet it has a purple ear. Produced in the region of Guanacaste, this type of corn is associated with a wide range of traditions and customs. In recent years, there have been many efforts to prevent its extinction.
Maíz pujagua contains a high percentage of fiber, proteins and minerals and it is said to be highly nutritious. However, as with many local species of corn in the area, there has been little to no research regarding this variety.
Food made from purple corn makes great vegan snacks.
There are all sorts of dishes you can prepare with purple corn - from atol (a version of porridge) to chicheme and pinolillo (two well-known Costa Rican beverages). Most of these recipes can be made with Bluezone Purple Corn Flour, which is available on Local Keeps.
From Vegan Snacks to Syrup: Corn Is Everywhere
Corn is not only used to make quesadillas, tamales or popcorn. As a matter of fact, food is just one out of four thousand available uses for corn. Corn has a wide range of by-products: syrup, oil, flour, or starch are just a few of them. These products are readily available in beverages, toothpaste, paper and even cosmetics.
Notebooks made out of corn paper.
Corn is such a flexible crop that it may well revolutionize the future of fuel. For instance, corn cobs and dried stalks are a potential source for ethanol production. Because of this, biotechnologists and genetic engineers have focused their attention in perfecting such processes and thus revolutionize fuel production in the tropics.
To local communities and the global food system, corn is very important. However, as we’ve explored in this post, there are many more varieties than yellow corn. Species such as maiz pujagua or purple corn have great cultural, social and culinary importance. Consuming Costa Rica corn, also, can contribute greatly to local communities and further help in protecting different varieties.
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