Fast fact: as a vegan foodie who loves Mexican food, my body is approximately 67% corn (mostly tortillas). Mexico has over 60 recognized strains of corn and over 20,000 regional adaptations of the crop. It’s safe to say that corn is one of the foundations – if not the foundation – of Mexican cuisine. Many of Mexico’s most iconic dishes start with a kernel of corn. And it has been this way for thousands of years. That’s why I wanted to explore the crop that is such a central part of Mexican cooking—with an emphasis on history, preparations, varieties, and uses. And don’t worry, I promise not to make too many corny jokes (except that one).
The History of Corn in Mexico
If you know me, you know I love delving into the history of what I am eating and preparing. Luckily, corn has a fascinating history in Mexican culture and belief. Corn was one of the first plants to be domesticated in Mexico, along with chiles (another essential part of Mexican cuisine). It is believed that corn was first domesticated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, around the year 4,000 BCE. For many of Mexico’s indigenous tribes, corn was not only nourishing; it was sacred.
According to the Mayan creation story, humankind was created from corn. As the story goes, the creator gods tried to make humans out of mud and wood, but to no avail (the mud people couldn’t stand and the wood people were soulless). It was only after they mashed corn into meal that they found a suitable substance for creating humankind. According to Aztec mythology, the gods gave corn to the first humans, and the nourishing crop made them strong and capable of work. Honestly, I love any origin story that involves food!
When I’m cooking, I love getting my hands dirty. Working with masa – the pliable, delicious dough derived from corn – is one of my favorite things to do as a chef. There is a long, storied history to this unique pleasure: Mexico’s ancient tribes were the first cooks to turn the vegetable into masa, through a process we now call “nixtamalization” (a word derived from the Aztec language).
During this process, dried corn kernels are boiled then soaked in an alkaline solution – usually water and lime (the chemical, not the citrus!) – to make them softer and more pliable. After soaking for about 10 hours, the corn is then drained and rinsed, causing the kernel’s hard outer shell (the pericarp) to slide off. The soft remainder is then ready to be ground into masa. This is the way that masa has been made for millennia, and a surefire way to up your tortilla game immensely.
Varieties of Corn In Mexico
Variety is the spice of life, and as I’ve said, Mexican cooking is all about different varieties of corn. Most of the corn produced in the United States is yellow, most of the corn produced in Mexico is white. Mexico’s 60+ varieties of corn come in a beautiful rainbow of colors—from white to red, to blue (you may have had blue corn tortillas at a traditional Mexican restaurant), to purple. Shapes can vary too, with some kernels being rounder and some being pointier, pointy corn is an especially popular choice for elote. Flavors run the gamut from earthy, to nutty, to sweet.
Corn is at the heart of most of my favorite Mexican dishes. The aforementioned elote is a popular snack that can be purchased from street vendors across Mexico’s cities. Pozole is a comforting Mexican stew made from hominy (corn that has been nixtamalized but not ground into masa). Tlayuda, an Oaxacan staple, is a large tortilla covered with savory toppings that looks and eats a bit like a pizza. A gordita (which translates to “fatty”) is an extra-thick corn tortilla stuffed with meat, beans, and/or cheese. And of course, who can forget the tamale: that classic dish of stuffed masa that’s been steamed in a husk or banana leaf?
And I know what you’re thinking: “Jade, you’re forgetting the most famous Mexican dish of all.” Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. I will be exploring this wonderful dish personally, in Mexico, as part of my global journey. We’ll have a lot to “taco bout.” Sorry, make that two corny jokes!
If you enjoyed this article or have suggestions on how we can improve it, please leave us a comment below. Also, make sure to check out other articles I’ve created or stories I’ve written about food culture – here.