In honor of World Food Day, October 16, an entry on one of the most important staples of culture and cuisine in the western hemisphere: corn. 

Anyone who attends a concert in Nicaragua, especially at a bar or hostel, is practically guaranteed to hear Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy’s popular song Los Hijos del Maiz (Children of Corn).  It’s hard to miss, although you may not understand all the lyrics very well because everyone in the room will be shouting them out full volume.  The song begins, “If they take away our bread (a direct referral to the 1980’s trade embargo) we will be obliged to live as our grandparents, with the fermented corn that runs through the blood of our ancestors”.  The song continues with a long list of food products derived from corn, many of which have odd indigenous names like perrerreque.  The complete lyrics can be found here, on the website of an excellent spanish school that takes its name from the song.

Although pan simple can be found in every corner shop in urban Nicaragua, corn remains a food staple, and the success of the annual corn harvest is highly important both for Nicaraguan diets and for the economy.  Although the majority of the corn is harvested dry for storage, the corn harvest actually last for months and begins with the harvest of chilote, or baby corns.  Baby corns are an essential part of all Nicaraguan soups, and are also the central ingredient in guiso de chilote, a side dish of creamed baby corns that accompanies meat dishes at the local comedors.  If you’re lucky, the chilote harvest coincides with first harvest of red beans, called frijol comagüe. The beans are harvested mature but not dried, and they cook quickly and are sweeter and creamier than the regular cooked dried beans.  They make a wonderful pair with sweet freshly steamed baby corn, and I can only imagine a campesino’s elation to eat this fresh dish after months of tortilla and heavy cooked dried beans.

The next stage of the corn harvest is elote.  It is understandable but actually a big mistake to think of elote as corn on the cob.  It is young dry corn, and so immensely tougher and starchier than the sweet corn varieties we plant in the US.  I had to learn to think of it as a completely different food before I could really enjoy it.  Elote is boiled or grilled, and the kernels can be shaved off the cob raw to be used to make atol, a thick sweet corn pudding, and guirilas, a kind of sweet grilled corn pancake cooked like a tortilla and eaten with cream and fresh cheese. The proper way to eat boiled elote is to carefully bite each kernel off whole and chew the rubbery sweet kernel, then suck the sweet juice out of the empty cob.  It’s a very enjoyable bus food, and when it is in season women carry buckets of steaming ears of corn up and down the bus routes.

After the elote harvest, the remaining corn in the field is left to dry.  The stalks are doubled over to protect the ears from rains and moisture, until the kernels are dry enough to be stored for months in sacks.  The food products derived from this dried corn are endless, from the three-times-a-day tortilla to indio viejo, a polenta-like dish with vegetables and meat, and cosa de horno, a sweet corn bread sold in busses and bus terminals.

The tortilla is the standard corn accompaniment to Nicaraguan dishes.  In the countryside, every meal is eaten with a tortilla, and they are rolled up with cheese inside or toasted for snacks, too.  It’s pretty easy to distinguish the flavor and texture of a tortilla made of real corn from one made of maseca, the pre-ground tortilla flour purchased at a super market.  The following pictures were taken in a village in Achuapa, where María makes 60 tortillas a day by hand for her large family.  The corn is first cooked with ashes from the fire, a process that can also be done with lime (calcium hydroxide).  The ash helps to split and remove the skins from the corn kernels and also helps our bodies absorb the vitamin B and calcium in the corn.  The best explanation for how this works is in the beginning of Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  After the corn is cooked and washed, it is run through a hand mill, patted into tortillas (not pressed, like in Mexico), and toasted on a clay comal over a wood stove.  If you make the corn tortilla properly, it puffs up in the middle while it is toasting on its second side.

Possibly one of the most distinctive uses in Nicaragua for corn are the corn flour drinks – posol, pinol, pinolillo and tiste. Each of these variations begins with toasted corn – which is ground and then mixed with ground cacao, and/or cinnamon and sugar, and then with water or milk.  The corn and cacao flours don’t entirely dissolve, so people who drink these drinks are constantly swishing their glasses around to mix them up.  Inevitably the last few swallows are mouthfuls of sandy wet flour.  It takes a little getting used to.

Finally, after all the corn is harvested and eaten or stored, only the plants and cobs remain.  There are a few scattered projects promoting a way of making charcoal out of corn cobs, but the most cobs and left-over dried corn plant, called rastrojo, are shredded and fed to cattle or tilled back into the earth as organic matter. There are thousands of varieties of corn in Nicaragua – blue corn, white corn, yellow corn, and a dark golden orange corn.  Nearly everyone in every part of Nicaragua plants corn wherever they can.  It’s not uncommon to see houses along the highway surrounded with corn.  It is also one of the crops whose seed production remains in the hands of small producers here, and hopefully it will remain that way.