Corn, also known as maize, is part of every meal in the Mayan culture. Most americans know corn in a form that is either popped, boiled, steamed, eaten off the cob or shucked and served as a side dish. But to the Mayan culture, corn has a bigger significance than just food.
Corn Significance in Maya Culture
Corn has played a significant role in empires, civilizations and people for thousands of years. The Mayans regarded corn as a cornerstone of their culture and spirituality. Maize was so highly revered that the Mayans had a Maize God. Corn was a gift from the Gods and cultivating it was a sacred duty. Temples were built for Maize Gods and corn was used to nourish workers and kings. To the Mayans, the Gods made humankind out of maize. The Mayans also considered this sacred plant a medicinal food – when suffering from severe illness they would eliminate all other foods from the diet and let corn alone nourish the person back to health – so his flesh and blood could be renewed like it was when the Gods created the first man and the first woman.
The Maya Corn Secret
When the Spanish conquistadors invaded the Americas in the 16th century, they brought maize back to Spain and Africa. People that relied on the corn soon became sick with niacin (Vitamin B3) deficiency symptoms. Corn soon became a poor mans food, barely good enough to survive on. What the Spanish forgot to take with them was the centuries old knowledge of how to prepare the corn to fully nourish the body.
Mayans inherited a knowledge of plants that had developed over thousands of years. Mayans cook their corn in lime (derived from limestone) water which improves the nutritional value of the corn. It softens the kernel exterior, releases the germ, and converts nutrients such as niacin, B vitamins, and amino acids into a form easily absorbed by the human body. Long before nutritional research was available, the Mayans had figured it out. Cooking the corn in the lime solution also adds calcium, essential for strong bones.
Maya cooks are extremely resourceful when it comes to utilizing corn and the menu is varied and delicious. The most common use of corn in Mayan households is the corn tortilla.
Making Corn Tortillas
Corn tortillas may seem like a ho-hum, low class food to most, but the Mayan have relied on corn as a staple in their diet. They are healthy, contain no lard or oil, and are irresistible when pulled right off the comal. Warm, soft and chewy, they are the ultimate comfort food.
I had the pleasure of helping make corn tortillas with Lucita in her Mayan home. She makes them fresh, three times a day.
The process begins with corn, not sweet corn, but dried, hard, white corn. The corn is stripped off the cob, then boiled in water with white lime powder. The corn is cooked in a large metal pot over an open fire until the kernels are soft. The kernels are then ground.
Traditional Maya would hand grind the corn with a stone grinder, but today it’s done by machine. Every village has a communal corn grinder and during our stay we saw plenty of young girls and boys walking with their corn buckets to and from the corn mill.
The cooked corn is loaded into the grinding machine with a little water, and corn masa comes out of the bottom, ready to use.
In San Filipe, grinding corn costs 10 cents bz per pound.
Preparing the Comal
The comal is a traditional stove in Maya culture. It’s a flat griddle that is heated by firewood. The fire was prepared and the comal griddle started to get hot. A waha leaf is rubbed on it. The waha leaf is a waxy leaf that when rubbed onto the hot comal, creates a non stick surface. It’s natures Teflon. Amazing!
The Corn Tortilla Technique
We sat right in front of the comal on little stools with a child sized table in front of us.
To make tortillas, we washed our hands, grabbed a handful of masa, rolled it into a ball and started to flatten it on a plastic circle. The plastic sheets allow easy manipulation of the masa to flatten, turn and make into a perfect circle. I became jealous watching Lucita quickly make perfectly round and thin tortillas. She made four tortillas for my one. The technique looks easy but my tortillas were not perfect circles.
We patted the dough ball then turned the plastic sheet while keeping a cupped open hand on the edge of the tortilla and using the other hand to press the masa against the cupped hand to create the round tortilla shape, at least that was the intention. Mine turned out decent, but I ended up making Mickey Mouse corn tortillas for my children instead.
Then we grilled both sides of the tortillas on the comal. When the tortilla inflates, pat it down, and it’s ready to eat. It only takes a few seconds to cook the tortilla, unless they are fat tortillas like mine…they take a little longer.
We’ve NEVER had better corn tortillas. We ate an embarrassing amount. The fresh corn, the smoky fire and the work that went into making these could all be tasted. A meal is not complete without a tortilla and they go with everything the Maya cook. It was a really cool experience to make tortillas in the traditional Mayan way.
Video of Tortilla Making
Below is a video that I stole from a fellow blogger, Norbert of GloboTreks.