Sunday, August 16, 2009

Children of the Corn

Hijos del Maíz is a term you’ll hear Nicaraguans proudly referring to themselves by. “Children of the corn.” Corn is the traditional staple of their diet and literally in every bite they eat. The harvest time is approaching (late August to September), and the whole community is involved. Men and boys are out in the fields planting and harvesting, the women and young girls are cooking, cleaning and sorting the harvest, and everyone participates in the eating. The corn harvest is probably the most important of all. It is often only done once a year (while red beans, the other main food, are harvested twice). The corn crop is dependent on the rains that fall during the rainy season here (May-October). Too little rain can mean that some villagers go without food for part of the year. Because of their shallow roots, too much can also spoil the crop. Agriculture work (corn, beans and coffee) employs the majority of men in the small villages here.

My town held their annual Corn Festival this past weekend in honor of this important vegetable, and I was blown away by the sheer number of foods that you can make with corn. There is at least one if not more corn products included in every meal here.
As part of the festivities, a “Corn Queen” was selected. Eighteen young girls from the surrounding communities paraded up on a stage decked-out in dresses and hats fabricated from corn husks and kernels, dyed different colors.

The contestants had to perform a traditional dance and also were asked to name the ingredients in several typical Nicaraguan corn foods as a test of their corn knowledge. What did the winner receive? You guessed it: corn (and some makeup products).
There were vendors at the festival from all the 24 surrounding small communities selling just about every possible food made with corn known to man. I’ll show you a few.
First, tamales. These are probably familiar to many Americans, since they are also part of traditional Mexican food. These tamales pictured below are sweet- mixed with sugar and cream. Other variations include adding beans, pork, chicken… They are wrapped in corn husks.

This is another variation of tamale called nacatamal. It has the same corn meal base, but also contains rice, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and pork (or chicken). They are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a large pot over a fire. The final product is an entire meal in a little leaf-wrapped pouch. They are sold for about 50 cents.

This dessert is called atol. It is basically a corn starch pudding with cinnamon and sugar. It is usually served chilled.

This food below is very similar to atol and is called atolillo. It is thicker and served in squares like a brownie.

This food is called buñuelo (boon-way-low). These fried corn meal and cheese balls are soaked in a sugar cane and cinnamon sauce. They’re best when they’re hot and fresh.

This pink drink is also made from corn (just one of many corn beverages here). It is called sosolca or chicha. It is made from ground corn and sugar and a hot pink dye gives it it’s color. Most drinks here are sold in plastic baggies like these; you tear a hole in a corner and suck out the contents. Another popular drink here made from corn is called pinol and is made from toasted ground corn and cocoa and cinnamon. Nicaraguans also refer to themselves as “pinoleros” – strongly identifying themselves with this national drink.

And of course we can’t forget tortillas. There are two main types of tortillas made from corn here- the more prevalent ones are made with mature corn and most households make at least 30 a day as they are eaten at every meal. However, the tortillas pictured below are made from baby corn and are called guirila (wee-ree-la). They are thicker and have a sweeter taste. They are eaten with a white fresh cow cheese called cuajada. It’s similar to mozzarella, but a little more salty.

And good old corn-on-the-cob made from corn picked that day. The easiest for on-the-go eating, it’s often sold by walking vendors on buses.

These are corn meal and cheese baked rings called rosquillas. They are typical of the northern region where I live in Nicaragua and there are hundreds of little rosquillerías - rosquilla shops - that compete to make the best ones. They are made in the salty version and also made with a cane sugar topping to make a sweet treat. They are eaten with coffee – you’re supposed to let the rosquillas soak in the coffee to soften them, eating them when you’ve emptied the cup of liquid.

Indio viejo (“old Indian”) is also a traditional Nicaraguan dish. It’s a cheese and corn meal-base soup with chicken and vegetables. It’s very thick and filling and very salty. It’s often made in very large pots to serve many people (such as at a party, funeral or wedding).

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour through Corn Country. This list I’ve created of Nicaraguan corn foods is certainly not comprehensive. Who would have thought that all of these things could come from one plant? While my job here as a Health Volunteer is to advise Nicaraguans on a balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables (as you can see, their diets have a strong base of carbohydrates), it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer variety of foods they can squeeze out of this simple grain.

Another fun fact: I am often called "pelo de elote" (hair of corn) for my blonde hair which bears a strong resemblance to the hairs on a stalk of corn...

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