Foods of the Americas: The world becomes obsessed with corn!
By Michelle Bakeman
Maize moved into the agricultural landscape of Europe with ease at the start of the sixteenth century, but it occurred to few people to cultivate it for human consumption, instead using the crop for animal fodder, as wheat continued to be the coveted grain of the Old World. If the majority of Western European nations rejected the idea of eating corn, then where was it embraced? Nowhere, it seems, treasures corn outside of the Americas more than the collective countries of Africa.
While the crop is definitely a mainstay of the diets here and there across the globe in countries such as Nepal, Indonesia, Romania, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, its consumption has reached unparalleled heights in more than a dozen African countries. Of the more than 50 African nations, 25 of them report that their populations consume more than 52 grams
of maize per person per day. Of those, thirteen report that their people consume at least 107 grams (some much more) of maize per person per day. One cup of cornmeal weighs approximately 120 grams, which would indicate a heavy reliance on the crop as a daily staple. In fact, maize is currently Africa’s most important cereal crop, providing between 30% and 50% of the calories consumed daily depending on the country, while wheat provides less than 20% of the daily caloric intake. Why is that? Why not eat potatoes? Why not wheat-based pasta?
In simple terms, the answer is that maize is easy to grow, harvest, and store. It is also incredibly adaptable to varying climates and soils, and hence, the perfect crop for the African landscape, one that historically has seen more dry days than wet, one that in fact struggles with drought. The popularity of maize cultivation in Africa has its roots in the spice trade. The Venetian traders of the 17th century pushed the crop in Africa at the same time that they were pushing it onto their own peasants of Northern Italy. And while their motives are still unclear, the result has had far-reaching implications. Unlike most of the corn-eating people of the world, the populations of Africa prefer white maize to yellow. Yellow maize is sweeter, which would seem to be more palate-pleasing, but the African rationale is that the yellow varieties are simply too sweet to function as a daily staple in one’s diet. Therefore, more than 90% of the corn grown in Africa is white, while globally the reverse is true, as more than 90% of the corn grown everywhere else is yellow.
Since its introduction to the continent five hundred years ago, fervent measures have been taken by African governments to adhere to maize production, as the human engineering of the crop that was seen so many thousands of years ago in Mesoamerica has continued in Africa. Most recently, African governments have subsidized the cultivation in an effort to keep their populations fed and have toiled ceaselessly to create hybrids that resist drought as well as the destructive fungus called American rust that showed up in Sierra Leone in 1949. The creation of hybrid corn seeds has allowed for the augmentation of the yearly maize crop yield in modern times, in some cases by more than 300%, and just in time. Today many African nations face a growing uncertainty with regard to their ability to feed their populace. The demand for maize is estimated to keep climbing over the course of the next 30 years. In industrialized nations, that demand will be for animal fodder, but in developing nations, it will be for human consumption as populations continue to rise. In those areas in between, the need for the crop will be twofold. Sadly, as the planet warms, the extreme heat will affect the maize plants during key stages of their development, leading to smaller crop yields and eventually maize shortages. The price of the crop will rise, and there will be unavoidable starvation in those countries that rely heavily upon it. Because of its versatility, corn is the one crop whose production or lack thereof perhaps has the most direct effects on both the wealthy and the impoverished alike around the world. It is not just used for human food in countless ways from bread to soda to cooking oil; it serves to feed animals, is employed to make fuel (ethanol), penicillin, and glue, and is even being used to produce corn-based plastics that have proven more environmentally friendly than plastic predecessors.
With regard to the crop’s importance as a cereal grain in Africa, it is unmatched as the continent heads into the second quarter of the 21st century. And for all the worry that surrounds the security and future of its cultivation, on a day-to-day basis the only thing any one individual can do is enjoy all that maize currently has to offer, and from an African standpoint, that is priceless. Quintessential to the African preparation of the foodstuff is that its cooks prefer to use boiled rather than baked maize in their dishes. Many people will be surprised to learn that corn prepared this way reveals a tender kinship that exists between the inhabitants of African, Northern Italian, and Southern U.S. kitchens that dates back almost 400 years. While the Northern Italians were developing a dependency upon maize polenta, Americans born and raised in the southern states found themselves in the midst of a love affair with hominy grits, ignited early on when the United States were just colonies and fueled throughout the centuries.
In 1985 in the town of St. George, South Carolina, boasting a population of just 2000 strong, the town folk proudly became aware that they consumed more grits per person than anywhere else in the world. With this knowledge, they created the first World Grits Festival in April of that year and have continued to host it annually to this day. For the duration of the three-day celebration, the people of St. George participate in events that glorify their favorite food including a carnival, games, music, and even a “rolling in the grits contest.” Of course, stone ground grits are served all day long. The popularity of the festival has swelled in recent years, and currently, the town must prepare to welcome over 45,000 visitors excited to celebrate grits with them every April. Southerners continue to delight in eating their grits dishes, combining them with shrimp, ham, eggs, bacon, cheese, or simply scooping them up dressed in salt and butter, traditionally grits’ favorite clothes.
And what are grits but slow-boiled ground hominy corn in water? Essentially, grits and polenta are the same belly-filling, happy porridge, albeit with different names, and in Africa, steamed or boiled maize found yet another home, debuting on plates as an even thicker version of its American and Italian cousins, white from white maize, oval-shaped like footballs or round like tennis balls, and nestled against vegetables or stews in the tradition of African fufu, (plantains, cassava, or yams that have been boiled, pounded, and rolled into spheres). In Eastern Africa, the fufu-like maize dish is known as ugali, in Zimbabwe it is called sadza, nshima in Zambia, and when made with fermented corn for a sour taste, banku and kenkey in Ghana. Another dish made with fermented corn is ogi in Nigeria, a tangy-tasting maize pudding that is eaten for breakfast, usually with fruit and sometimes with fried bean purée. Also in Nigeria, cooks prepare ukpo oka, which is a different kind of corn pudding, steamed, that is either wrapped in leaves or eaten as porridge with vegetables. In South Africa, people are busy making phutu pap, where the corn is kept fluffy and grainy like rice rather than eaten finely ground. South Africans also make a dish called samp, using dried corn kernels that are then cracked and cooked, often alongside beans.
And finally, there is irio, a Kenyan dish that combines two New World ingredients to produce a lovely comfort food, featuring mashed potatoes and fresh corn mixed with green peas. Escaping maize in Africa, it seems, is not altogether possible.
The same can perhaps be said about the countries of the New World that birthed so many varieties of corn. The Mexican diet is still heavily based on corn, as it has been for thousands of years, and Mexican cuisine is enjoying world-wide fame beyond just tacos and burritos. Today’s chefs are focusing on using only the freshest ingredients to produce homemade corn tortillas, shying away from the pre-packaged versions sold in grocery stores or fast food chains. The rich sweetness of high-quality maize is being exploited by these chefs; 21st-century corn worshippers developing new kinds of tamales, folding together corn mousses and corn husk meringues and making their own in-house maize masas for everything from traditional recipes to modern masa dumplings. The tortilla continues to be the essence of the cuisine; round and soft, sweet and warm, they are prepared fresh with pride and made into tostadas, quesadillas, gorditas, tlacoyes, flautas, or huaraches to name a few, some grilled, some deep fried, legions of them in hues of white, yellow, or blue, stuffed with meats, cheeses, and savory sauces, decorating the carts of street vendors and the plates reposed on white linen table clothes of fine restaurants.
So if you find yourself in Mexico City, be prepared to confront an onslaught of street carts geared to cater to your street food fantasies, and among the innovative corn-based delicacies is, of course, grilled corn on the cob itself, in Mexico called elote, sold perfectly charred and topped with a chili-lime cilantro sauce and crumbled Mexican cheese. Don’t be surprised to find similar grilled corn cobs on the streets of countries situated on the far side of the globe, in places like Turkey, Taiwan, and Iran. It goes without saying that you will find it in Peru, perhaps served to you flavored with cumin and lime or topped with Peruvian ají and cheese. There, along the spine of the Andes Mountains, the descendants of the Inca and the tribes they conquered continue to cultivate maize with the same diligence they did before the arrival of the Spaniards, today turning out over 55 varieties. Corn kernels dress up the majority of dishes, and not just Peruvian ones, as they can be found on plates and in bowls everywhere in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile, dotting salads, piled next to rice, and buried in a variety of broths and stews. People of these regions call corn choclo from the Quechua word chocollo, as little has changed in local vernacular even after five hundred years. It is not uncommon to find a bowl of popcorn or a snack called cancha (toasted, crunchy kernels of corn seasoned with salt) as an appetizer in a restaurant in these countries. The South American cousin of the Mexican tamal is the humita, in Quechua called huminta. While from the outside they look almost exactly alike, a steamed corn husk or banana leaf encasing a yummy filling, it is the inside that is different. Humitas are made with ground fresh corn while tamales are made with the corn dough, masa. Warm weather brings life to the maize of South America, and cobs show up in droves from December to March slathered with cheese, flayed into ceviches (raw fish cooked in citrus with onion, tomatoes, fresh herbs, plantain chips, and yes, corn kernels), and stuffed into avocado halves dressed up with mayonnaise and lime juice.
In my beloved Chile, cooks whip up their famed pastel de choclo, a two-tiered dish, like a pie, consisting of a foundation of beef, chicken, onions, hard boiled eggs, raisins, and black olives topped with a starchy-sweet yellow corn dough that has been baked crispy gold. The combination of the sweetness of the corn, onions, and raisins with the savory of the olives and the meats and the creaminess of the eggs is Chilean culinary magic at its finest. This dish is a national specialty and is also claimed by Argentineans, Bolivians, and Peruvians as their own.
The northern reaches of the continent have a particular love for a corn staple that perhaps rivals even the Mexican passion for the tortilla. That food is the Colombian and the Venezuelan arepa. Arepas are little corn cakes that look like English muffins and are fashioned out of something called masarepa, which is pre-cooked corn flour.
They are a pillar of Colombian and Venezuelan cooking, and depending on the region where you ask for one, the arepa you will be served can be thin or thick, with perhaps just butter at breakfast, but then split and stuffed with meat and cheese-based fillings for the other meals of the day. They have a crispy feel on the outside but are tender and creamy on inside, and can be baked, grilled, or fried to fit the fillings.
Corn love, it seems, is in the Americas unequivocal. From its presence in breakfast cereals, to snacks, to soups, and even desserts, the cultures of the New World would be unrecognizable without it. In Ecuador one finds varieties of corn in every market in every town, large and small. The grocery store shelves are lined with bags of something the people call morocho, which is white cracked hominy corn that serves as the main ingredient in a local specialty drink that is sort of a hybrid between rice pudding and spiced eggnog. It is sold by vendors in the streets as a sweet, chilled beverage, and frankly, it can be found in the streetscape of “Anytown, Ecuador.” Ecuadorians cultivate corn everywhere they can, as their nation still distinctively shows its bold agricultural roots, as the natural world seems to constantly encroach upon the metropolitan sidewalks. As one strolls just outside of the city centers of the Ecuadorian Andes, one happens upon horses, pigs, cows, and even goats meandering along with their poncho-wearing owners, whose faces have become like leather from the equatorial sun at high altitudes, and if one wanders just a block or two off the main road, one inevitably ends up next to a thriving cornfield that proudly stands tall within city limits. The rituals and beliefs of the ancients still permeate modern life, as folks celebrate the day of the dead every year on November 2nd by drinking colada morada, which is a thick beverage of purple corn flour and berries, often served warm. Its ancestor was also made of corn, vegetables, and llama blood and was consumed during the burial rites of loved ones.
As in the past, it is the maize that is still the figurative connection between life and death, the common denominator that reminds them all of the great circle of life, as the corn grows and is harvested, its husks fade to beige and turn brittle, and corn seeds flourish in the fields once again. Today I walked beside the maize, pondered its quiet dignity, and I felt at once so small and such a part of something larger, and then I smiled, as I took comfort in knowing that tomorrow as it did yesterday, in the words of Anne Bronte, “a light wind [will sweep] over the corn, and all nature [will laugh] in the sunshine.”
The following salad recipe is a simple celebration of summer, and the taste of it is for me a particularly tender memory from my childhood days in Chile. I have, of course, tweaked it and made it my own. Feel free to do the same. The key to it is to try to find the most beautiful, ripe produce as possible, something that here, in Ecuador will not be much of a challenge.
Chilean Summer Salad (serves 4-6 people)
2 cups corn (use either fresh, puffed white corn, sold in the grocery store in bags in the produce section, or, if you prefer, canned sweet yellow corn
1 large cucumber, seeded and chopped into roughly one inch cubes ( to seed it, simply cut it open lengthwise and run a spoon down the middle of each half over the trash, and out pop the seeds. You can either peel the cucumber first or not, to your liking).
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced (to seed the tomato, split it in half and squeeze it, flesh side down over the trash
Half of a purple onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, shredded
*1 pound of cooked and cooled ground beef (Place it into a dry pan, add half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of cracked black pepper and sauté until brown. If you use a fatty beef, be sure to drain off the excess fat after you cook it).
Your favorite Lettuce
*If you do not eat meat, substitute two cans of drained and rinsed beans. Creamy white beans are a great choice for this salad.
For the dressing you will need orange marmalade, apple cider vinegar, dried oregano, olive oil, one clove of peeled, crushed garlic, salt, and pepper to taste.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the corn, cucumber, tomato, onion, carrot, and beef. On top of that mixture, add the basil, about 20 leaves, washed and julienned (thinly sliced). Then add the lettuce, washed and chopped. Set aside to make the dressing.
For the dressing, place 1 tablespoon orange marmalade into a small bowl. Add about a quarter of a cup of apple cider vinegar. Then add a teaspoon of dried oregano, the crushed garlic, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Whisk the ingredients together and slowly drizzle in about a quarter of a cup of olive oil. Taste it. If you crave more sweetness, add a bit more marmalade, or if you prefer the dressing to be tangier, add more vinegar. Adjust the seasonings to make the dressing just right for you and your friends, and then pour it over the salad, gently tossing the lettuce and basil with the ingredients on the bottom of the bowl just before you serve it. I like to eat this salad with crusty, warm garlic butter bread. That, and a good bottle of Chilean wine, and the day seems just a little bit brighter. Enjoy!
Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop 1500-2000 by James C. McCann, Harvard University Press, 2005
The New York Academy of Sciences. https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/nyas.12396
Michelle Bakeman has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia in Spanish and Latin American Studies. She is also a graduate of the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana. She has been a chef for twenty-two years, has owned and operated several restaurants, and has been a teacher for sixteen years. She moved to Cuenca in 2013.