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Preparing masa harina in Michoacan, Mexico

Aztec advances (9): nixtamalization of corn

This is the ninth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). Image (main): preparing masa harina the traditional way by a grandmother in Michoacán, Mexico (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Display of maize varieties found throughout Mesoamerica; Museo de Culturas Popularies, Mexico City
Pic 1: Display of maize varieties found throughout Mesoamerica; Museo de Culturas Popularies, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Corn [maize] that has been soaked in wood-ash water or lime water is called [in North America] hominy. American Indians throughout North, Meso-, and South America invented this process, which they taught to the early colonists. Soaking corn in lye made from wood ashes or in a slaked lime solution (both of which are alkaline) removed the hulls and made the corn more easily ground. It also made the protein and niacin contained in corn more readily absorbed by the body. Niacin, a water-soluble vitamin also known as B3, is rare in vegetable sources. In corn’s natural state most of the niacin is bound to carbohydrates and passes through the body without being utilised. The alkaline processing that is necessary to make hominy releases the niacin, which is necessary for the body to absorb calcium and potassium from other foods that are eaten.

Pic 2: Dry untreated maize (left), and treated maize (right) after boiling in lime. In this case, typical of El Salvador, one tablespoon of lime is used for one pound of maize
Pic 2: Dry untreated maize (left), and treated maize (right) after boiling in lime. In this case, typical of El Salvador, one tablespoon of lime is used for one pound of maize (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The scientific name for this process is nixtamalization [from the Nahuatl nextli meaning ashes or cinders, and tamalli - tamale or bread made of steamed cornmeal]. The ancient Maya and Aztec both used it... [They] used lime to make hominy and ate it in soups and stews. They also dried and ground the hominy kernels into flour for tortillas and tamales. These two food items are still an essential part of southwestern and Mexican cuisine and continue to be made from a hominy flour called masa harina. It is the lime-water soaking and cooking that gives their distinctive taste.

Pic 3: Detail from a mural by Diego Rivera (‘Cultura Huasteca’) depicting ancient Mesoamerican culture; the preparation of tortillas can be seen bottom left
Pic 3: Detail from a mural by Diego Rivera (‘Cultura Huasteca’) depicting ancient Mesoamerican culture; the preparation of tortillas can be seen bottom left (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Anthropologists believe that the technique of making hominy spread along with the cultivation of corn, since whenever the crop was grown in the Americas, Indian people ate it as hominy. American Indians in the Southwest made their version of hominy by cooking sun-dried corn kernels in water combined with ashes from corncobs and powdered lime (calcium-oxide).
’The Northeast tribes of North America boiled oak, maple, or poplar wood ash in water and let the mixture stand overnight in order for the ash to settle out. Corn was then boiled in this lye-water until the hulls came off and the kernels turned a brilliant yellow. It was eaten fresh or dried and then cooked later or ground up. The cornmeal that North American Indians ate was actually ground hominy, or grits. When it was coarsely ground, it was called samp by some Eastern Woodlands tribes.’

Picture sources:-
• Main pic & pic 1: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: image from Wikipedia (Nixtamalization)
• Pic 3: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 28th 2019

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