As maize producers start thinking about the coming growing season, we thought it might be apt to take a global look at the many ways this most versatile of foods is served
Indigenous central Americans first domesticated maize from wild teosintes about 10,000 years ago in the Tehuacán Valley of what is now Mexico, and since then the plant has spread unstoppably around the globe. Today around 1.15 billion tonnes of maize are grown each year, and it is the biggest cereal crop in the world. Maize cultivation in total currently accounts for about 197 million hectares of land. That’s nearly 2 million square kilometers, or more than eight times the size of the United Kingdom!
A key reason for the success of maize has been the variety of uses for it – as a high-quality livestock feed and fodder, as an energy source for ethanol fuel and biogas, and as an ingredient in many chemical products including plastics and adhesives. But its original use was for human consumption, and it is now the staple food of 1.2 billion people, mainly in Central and South America, and Africa. We thought it would be interesting to look at some of the many ways maize is eaten and enjoyed, and perhaps tempt some of our readers to try something new. Bon appetite!
Tinned sweetcorn, arrived here from the US in the early 1960s
In Britain, we are perhaps most familiar eating maize as boiled or roasted corn-on-the-cob, best eaten hot with lashings of butter melting into the kernels, and as popcorn, a treat to munch at the cinema. Easily made at home, corn has been “popped” for several thousand years which happens because the strong outer shell of dried maize kernels is impervious to water. When heated the water inside the kernel expands under pressure and turns the starch inside to an airy foam which bursts the shell and “pops” the corn. Another familiar form, tinned sweetcorn, arrived here from the US in the early 1960s with the famous Green Giant brand.
A childhood favourite made from maize is Bird’s Custard, invented by Alfred Bird in Birmingham in 1837. His wife was allergic to eggs, so he developed a way to use cornflour (finely ground maize flour) instead to thicken milk to make custard. In fact, most of the maize eaten globally is first ground into flour or meal before being either baked as a bread, or cooked with liquid to make a type of porridge.
Tortilla – the staple of Mexico
In Mexico, the birthplace of maize, the staple carbohydrate is the tortilla, a thin chewy unleavened flatbread which has a rich corn flavour when made traditionally. Maize is soaked in limewater to remove the outer skin, which improves our ability to absorb its B vitamins, and proteins. This process is called nixtamalization. The treated maize is ground into flour and then mixed with water and salt, kneaded, rested, rolled or patted out thin and then cooked, traditionally on a hot stone.
Tortillas provide the base for many Mexican dishes, like tacos and burritos (tortillas folded around a filling of meat, fish, vegetables or beans), enchiladas (similar to a taco covered with a savoury sauce), and quesadillas (tortillas filled with cheese and fried or griddled). Tortillas are fried to make tortilla chips for snacking, or for nachos (tortilla chips topped with cheese and other toppings like meat, guacamole and sour cream).
Makki Di Roti – a famous maize bread from northern India and Pakistan
A delicious and easy-to-make southern US specialty is cornbread, a light crumbly bread often served for breakfast with bacon or dipped in milk, or with chili con carne. It is a batter bread, so does not need kneading or proving. Just mix cornflour, wheat flour, buttermilk, an egg, butter, salt and baking powder to a thick batter, and then bake. For extra taste, try using hot bacon fat instead of butter. Another famous maize bread comes from northern India and Pakistan. Makki Di Roti is fried in butter, and often served with spinach and mustard greens, or lentils.
The Wizard of Oz
Maize porridge is a staple around the world. In South Africa, pap is a very creamy and smooth example made through a gradual cooking process, and often accompanies stews and vegetables, and ugali porridge is popular throughout eastern Africa. Maize has long been an important crop in the US, as can be seen from classic Hollywood films – maize plants fringe the Yellow Brick Road in the Wizard of Oz, and Cary Grant is chased through a maize field by a dive-bombing plane in the famous scene from North by Northwest. So not surprisingly maize porridge is a traditional American dish in the form of grits, often eaten for breakfast like oat porridge in the UK.
The narrator of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula tries the Romanian version in Transylvania on his way to Count Dracula’s castle: “I had for breakfast more paprika, and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was ‘mamaliga’”. In Italy, polenta (made from Italian maize flour) is a classic accompaniment to many dishes, and is sometimes also cooled and then baked, fried or grilled.
Polenta makes an interesting and healthy alternative to potatoes, rice or pasta, and can be prepared in a couple of minutes using instant polenta and water, although the traditional recipe takes more time and a lot of stirring to get the perfect texture. Polenta flour is also used for orange or lemon polenta cake, a rich but light cake soaked in fragrant syrup. It is a straightforward bake, and is ideal for people following a gluten-free diet.
From chasing old souls to Old Blue Eyes himself
There are many drinks as well produced from maize. Champurrado is a comforting hot drink from Mexico produced from ground corn and fermented cacao beans, and there are many maize beers. The Tarahumara people of central Mexico make a maize beer called Tesgüino which according to traditional belief chases the old souls from the drinker “and so when people get drunk that’s why they act like children.”
For those seeking something stronger than beer, the most famous type of American whiskey comes from maize. By law, Bourbon whiskey like Jack Daniels must be made from a grain mixture containing at least 51% maize and be aged in charred oak barrels to qualify for the name. Legendary singer Frank Sinatra liked it so much he was buried with a bottle. If you are enjoying a Jack Daniels and coke in the States, the sugar syrup in the Coca Cola will also come from maize!