The process of nixtamalization is one of my favourite cooking stories from history. It is a sophisticated process involving empirical chemistry to convert maize from useless bulk into a nutritional food.
The nixtamalization process was vital to the early Mesoamerican diet. Unprocessed maize is deficient in vitamin B3; niacin. A population that depends on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra, niacin deficiency, or kwashiorkor, the absence of certain amino acids that maize is deficient in.
To unlock the niacin you must cook the maize in a solution containing lime, and ideally calcium. This can be done by adding lye (wood fire ash) to the kernels during boiling or by the addition of lime as a slaked rock.
Nextamalli is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the processed grain – also called Hominy which comes from the Algonquin word uskatahomen.
The spread of maize cultivation in the Americas was accompanied by the adoption of the nixtamalization process.
How this process developed may be understood by looking at cooking in Ancient Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish did not need the process. If you look at the cooking arrangement in the photo above you will see what is called a Fulacht Fiadh. In bronze age Ireland people did not have good cooking pots. If you are really careful it is possible to boil a stew in a bark container or an anmial skin, but it’s not easy.
The Irish used a cooking pit. The pit was lined with timber to prevent the sides from collapsing into a muddy hole. It was filled with water. Then a fire was built in the hearth and limestone rocks were placed on the fire. When they heated up the “cooks” used large wooden paddles to lift or roll the hot rocks and place them in the pit, which caused the water to boil and the meal to cook.
Using the same process in South America the locals found that the combination of slaked lime stone, and the wood ash from the fire had a magical effect on the maize. It converted maize from a vegetable into a staple food that gave almost everything you needed to live. Add a few beans, potato, tomato, chile and you have a feast.
When Europeans discovered maize in the new world, and saw how it formed a staple food, they brought it home and used it as a food in their colonies, especially in Africa and India. But they didn’t know about nixtamalization and famine soon followed. To this day pellagra remains a problem in some parts of the world where the grain spread without the process. South Africa, Egypt and Southern India still see problems.
The British attempted to feed the Irish with maize during the potato famine. Robert Peel imported Indian Corn from America and had it distributed at cost price. Most people could not afford it and those that could were appalled by the garish yellow rock hard grain that was unfit to make bread. They labelled it “Peel’s Brimstone” and many thought it was a plot to poison them. They had no idea how to cook the food. Those who persisted and boiled it down to a tasteless porridge were not feeding themselves in any case, because they had no niacin.