Nixtamalization is the process of alkaline (alkaline) cooking and grinding corn to make it more nutritious. The peoples of the maize, we think of the Aztecs, but also other North American cultures as far as the present United States, depended on maize as a basis for their diet. They rubbed the cooked grains on a limestone metate, a hand mill or rubbing stone, on which the women on their hands and knees made the basis for tortillas, empanadas, and so on. This resulted in a dough that was more nutritious than dry ground corn. It is very thankless work.
Later, the maize was soaked and boiled with basic substances such as lime water (calcium carbonate), potassium carbonate or even hydroxides (lye, slaked lime). During that soaking, the nutritious starch is released from the hard seed coat and from the cell walls, which makes grinding easier and gives a nicer result. Vitamins such as niacin are also soaked from the seed coat.
When the Conquistadors introduced corn to Europe, they forgot to bring the recipe from Mexico
Amino acid and vitamin deficiency
When the Conquerors introduced the corn to Europe in triumph, however, they forgot to bring the recipe from Mexico. Corn was seen here as a grain like any other, but one that yielded more than the grains of the old world. The poor in Southern Europe, large parts of Africa and later also in the United States were presented with this ‘modern’ way of processing maize. The result was a disease that has plagued the workers for centuries: pellagra! At first it was thought that it was a fungus of the maize, such as ergot in rye, but it was only in the last century that it became clear that it was an amino acid and vitamin deficiency. That manifested itself in a rough skin (pella agra) as well as wounds, confusion, fatigue and even death. Because of their own food tradition, Mexicans were never bothered by this.
nixtamalized corn (the word comes from nextamalli in Nahuatl, the Aztec language) is also offered industrially today. For cornmeal, look for the name ‘masa harina’ on the package.
Dough flour is therefore not the same as ‘normal’ cornmeal. The latter is not nixtamalized and you can’t work with it very well for Mexican dishes. Masa gives an instant dough when mixed with water, essential for tortillas. tamales, empanadas, gorditas, and so on.
Without seed coat
Another form of nixtamalized corn is hominy. You will find that term in the cuisine of the entire southern United States. It is often the whole seed kernels of the maize (without the skin), which have been treated with solutions with a high pH, and then dried. Those granules, which actually still have to be ground, are sold as such. It should exist in cans, so wet. Unfortunately I haven’t found one here in Brussels yet. Maybe you didn’t look in the right stores? Where do Americans shop these days?
The whole story of nixtamalization teaches us that you should always treat products and ingredients with a minimum of respect for the original uses, millennia of experience have led to recipes that have not evolved by chance. Fusion kitchen is interesting, fun now and then, but sometimes you could still have a problem with it. Tasty.
We would like to say thanks to the writer of this short article for this outstanding material
Nixtamalisatie – Nick Trachet over maïs – Foodlog