Corn holds the memory of culture, tradition, indigenous practices and history for many in Mexico.
Nixtamalization is the process of transforming dried corn kernels, using calcium, into a dough which is then used in a wide variety of Mexican dishes.
Dried corn kernels are boiled in an alkaline solution using pickling lime (also known as slaked lime or calcium hydroxide) and then left to soak overnight. When the corn is drained and rinsed some of the outer membrane layer is loosened and rubbed off. Corn that has gone through this process is now called nixtamal, or in some cultures, hominy.
The wet nixtamal is then ground to a dough using a specialized mill. The result is a silky, slightly elastic fresh “masa” dough that squiggles out the grinder. The masa is shaped into small balls called testalitos and pressed to create fragrant, soft, flavourful tortillas with a unique smell of Mexico!
How does this change the corn?
The nixtamalization process not only transforms corn structurally, but also nutritionally. Corn on its own is seen as a low source of nutrition, often associated with pellagra, a disease caused by vitamin B3 deficiency common to impoverished communities where the process of nixtamalization was not introduced with corn.
This issue can be traced back to the colonization of the Americas when corn was taken by Europeans to grow as a crop around the globe, but the nixtamalization process was not. This resulted in widespread disease and malnutrition. Through the process of nixtamalization the calcium in corn is increased as is the quality of protein absorbed by the body. Additionally, phytic acid is reduced making it easier for the body to absorb important minerals unlocked by the alkaline solution used during the nixtamalization process.
What is the cultural importance?
“When you are an immigrant you go through a lot of stages to find an identity in your new home. The part of my life that I could not find was my diet. I could adapt to a different climate, harsh weather, assimilate into the culture and learn a new language, but deep inside of me nixtamal was missing. There is so much history and culture behind this process which is the foundation of Mexican Cuisine. The aroma, texture, flavour and feeling of a fresh Nixtamal Tortilla doesn’t compare to anything else, it’s like freshly brewed coffee when you’ve had instant coffee all your life. This transformative experience is something that everyone deserves.
– Israel Alvarez Molina