māori and mayan maize

Kuia Hanui Lawrence (Ngāti Kahungunu) was telling us  (Pounamu & Gretta) yesterday about the ways she has been taught to prepare maize. She is harvesting the last of her maize now, in May, having left it to harden on the cane. Her whānau prepares kāngawai and pungarehu. She described the process of putting the maize in a big barrel in a back shed which the water trickles through for months on end until it is all fermented and comes easily off the cob. We are not sure if then peeled it but she did say that for a sack of corn you ended up with 5 or 6 pottles of kāngawai. For the pungarehu she used good quality wood ash, native manuka, put it in a bag and boiled it with the maize until the kernels were soft and the skins were easily removed. She explained that the ash gave a chemical reaction that improved the nutritional value and digestibility of the maize.

For dinner tonight we cooked tamales for the first time, a Mexican food where a white corn flour dough is steamed inside corn husks. They were delicious and really filling, about 1 1/2 cups of flour totally filled the belly’s of three hungry people. Looking at the packet we discovered that the special tamale corn flour known as Masa de Maiz had undergone a special process of preparation. The dried corn kernels are boiled with lime or wood ash to undergo “a magic chemistry that turns corn into more nutritious and complete protein“. We looked a little further and found that this process is attributed to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations from over three thousand years ago and has been given the scientific name “nixtamalization”.

The Europeans accepted maize immediately, but unfortunately for them they accepted it as another grain, to be used like European grains, that is to say ground and then made into mush or bread. They ignored nixtamalization, probably thinking it unnecessary with their more powerful and efficient mills. Because of this, maize-dependent cultures away from the New World suffer from dietary deficiencies like pellagra and kwashiorkor, which do not exist where nixtamilization is used.” [Source: Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food, 1999]

See Tio Pablo for Mexican Masa de Maiz here

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