A brief history of Mexico’s love affair with corn
The relationship between corn and the Americas dates back millennia, as indigenous tribes in the southern highlands of Mexico selectively cultivated and bred the tiny, rock-hard cobs in the vegetable we know and love today. . Over time, the culture has spread to all levels of human society, cementing its place as one of the most widespread cultures on earth. The versatility of corn is hard to overstate, used to create ethanol fuel, cornstarch, grain alcohol, animal feed, and an endless array of delicious foods across the globe. Although the culture has been adopted by a number of different regions, it remains a key part of the cuisine of its birthplace.
Mexican cuisine is often literally built on the tortilla. It’s the vehicle through which the country’s most popular edible exports are delivered: enchiladas, quesadillas, tacos, tamales, tlacoyos. Although wheat flour has gained popularity here in the United States — the home of the burrito — in Mexico, it’s all about corn.
Today, its presence is ubiquitous in the vast cityscapes of Mexico City and Guadalajara, but corn’s importance dates back far into the history of Mesoamerica, when this region was cultivated by the Toltec, Aztec and Mayan civilizations. . Much of the cuisine of this era would seem unfamiliar to today’s foodies, with one notable exception: the tamale. It was considered a sacred food by the native populations.
To prepare it, the ancient cooks invented a process called nixtamalization: corn kernels have been soaked in an alkaline solution (such as lime water) and peeled. The result was a soft, workable grain, which was ground into a paste called masa. The masa was traditionally stuffed with local vegetables. Although today it is more commonly associated with ground proteins and cheeses. The end product, wrapped in a corn husk – or plantain leaf – made for a portable, easy-to-eat meal: street food before there were streets. It’s no wonder the tamale has stood the test of time, spreading across Latin America, fracturing into a kaleidoscope of regional varieties.
The Mexican Love Story with a manageable, on-the-go kitchen has only gone from strength to strength in the hectic modern era. Mexico City, for example, is frequently praised as one of most important cities down to earth when it comes to street food. Designated as antojitos in Spanish (meaning “little cravings”), street food here can count corn as an almost universal ingredient. Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be treated to reach its highest potential. Elote is a perhaps the most recognized example. A a whole cob of corn is grilled and topped with a number of toppings, including butter, chili powder, mayonnaise, and cotija cheese. The final product is then served on a stick, providing an easy way to mobile consumption.
In the United States, New Yorkers can enjoy Mexico’s love affair with corn in places such as Tamal Factory in the Lower East Side, or at La Lonchería in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Los Angeles, of course, is ground zero for many of these authentic flavors. Consider La Mascota in Boyle Heights for top-notch tamele, or the the corn man of Lincoln Heights, a legendary street vendor who has been serving up mouth-watering praise for over 25 years.
If you have the opportunity to get to the source, head straight for the Condesa district of the Mexican capital. Here, hungry crowds gather around a cavalry of comals (large griddles), awaiting the next biting tribute to the country’s culinary darling. As it was thousands of years ago, so it will be forever. In Mexico, corn is king. Long live the king!