Alright, let’s be clear. There are porridges in Mexico. Specifically avena and arroz con leche come to mind. But when it comes to heritage Mexican cuisine, the really good innovative cooking that is unique to this part of the world, corn is everything, while oats and rice and all other grains fall to the sideline. We’ve stated before on the blog that all cultures have a porridge. We rescind this fact, because in our research, we do not think that Mexico really has a porridge culture. But, with all of Mexico’s incredible diversity in cooked corn food, we’ll admit the region never really needed a porridge to get by.
Back to the Stone Ages
The most visited museum in all of Mexico is the incredible Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. Since its construction in the 1960s, this museum has housed an unparalleled curation of ancient artifacts (including cooking materials) from different indigenous Mexican cultures, and it does a great job of putting together a narrative for visitors about human inhabitants in the region throughout time. Anthropology is a study of a culture’s material artifacts, and a lot of those relate to food. Food culture is a lens through which archaeologists can understand agriculture, city planning, class, religion, and technology. In Mexico, corn, or maíz, is the staple food. The grain was domesticated here and has since sustained generations upon generations of people. You know the adage, you are what you eat, but in Southern Mexico, this belief is an integral part of the creation myth of the Maya people. According to their cosmology, the first man and woman were formed from masa dough, or fresh corn flour, as a sort of living tamale people (the creator tried different materials first, but ultimately masa performed best).
Different colors of corn correspond with cardinal directions.The calendar year was based on harvest cycles. Prints of corn can be found in the region’s art and architecture. Again, the Maya literally call themselves corn people. And corn isn’t just significant to the Mayans; corn fed the people and was an important motif in Veracruz, Teotihuacan, Oaxaca, and Mexica (Aztec) ancient cities as well. And if you visit Mexico today, all of the yummiest food is based on corn products. Yet for all of the interesting cooking, we noticed that Mesoamerica is one of the few places in the world that lacked a foundational porridge.
What’s the Masa
In regards to corn, Mexican agriculture has given the world two great gifts. One, corn itself. Without the dedication and keen observation of indigenous Mesoamerican farmers some 8,000-9,000 years ago, corn may never have evolved into a domestic plant. Corn comes from teosinte – the latter is an unruly woolly mammoth of a grass to the former’s modern elephant. Some scientists believe that teosinte holds the answers to the future of agriculture because of its unique self-sufficiency and resilience in challenging climates, so way to go, farmers for keeping it alive and healthy!
Two, ancient Mesoamericans who ate corn invented a process to make their harvests healthier and more digestible. By soaking corn kernels in an alkaline substance, such as lime* (*lime was also a vital ingredient in transforming mud into a pseudo-concrete material and used to build massive pyramids all over the region), the grain’s vitamins become bioavailable for humans. This process is called nixtamalization. It is why tortillas taste different — and are more nutritious — than cornbread, even though the two are both made from corn flour and water. Mexican cuisine, as such, is based on nixtamalized corn called masa, which is a malleable dough. Slice some masa off the block and press it to a comal to make a tortilla or a gordita or tlacoyo. Wrap masa in a husk and steam it to make a tamale, or thin it down with water to make atole.
Goldilocks in Maíz
In Mexico City, comida callejera, or street food, is a cultural treasure. Nearly every corner in the city has some sort of cart hawking delicious, or rico, snacks and tasty lunches. In the morning, the vendors wheel out big metal cylinders stuffed with steaming breakfast tamales or atole (champurrado if chocolate has been added). We ate these things, chewing and sipping slowly, contemplatively. These were foods made from masa and water. Could this be authentic Mexican porridge? The verdict, alas, was no.
Tamales are steamed masa flour – although they’re not all that far off from thick rustic polenta, because they hold their own shape and crumble, tamales are too solid to truly be a porridge. One could maybe argue that they are dumplings (another food which fascinates people because it is eaten around the world). Tamales are soft and chewy and incredibly filling. A common worker’s lunch in Mexico City is called torta y tamale, and it is a sandwich that is filled with a tamale, then smeared with crema and chile salsa. Eat one, and you will feel as if you have eaten a wall.
Atole/champurrado is a little thicker than a hot chocolate, but it is definitely a beverage. If you google recipes for atole, you’ll see it described as a porridge, but going by our definition of “it glops,” the masa drink is too liquidy to meet that classification. It’s more akin to an ancient protein shake if anything.
Seeds are Living History
In 2018, Taste published a fascinating article about the industrialization of masa flour in Mexico, and how that move to factory production is robbing the country of its culinary heritage. It’s a story as old as the industrial revolution – monopoly economic interests squash the diversity that allowed human civilization to flourish. Agricultural diversity may have gained prominence in recent years as a reaction to global warming, but native communities have been concerned about big agrobusiness for decades. Why? Seeds are living memories. Each harvest cycle represents an unbroken lineage of plant to plant, farmer to farmer. This link to human ancestry as well as sense of place is spiritually significant. Not only do natural plants taste better, they have lasted for eons, and so it is short sighted to entirely supplant them with hybrid breeds created recently by humans. Nature is a smarter innovator than us. Life, uh, finds a way. Anyways. Before we direct you to a recipe for Mexican corn foods, we’d like to send you on a quest for good corn. Whether you’re a budding grower, an avid local shopper/restaurant connoisseur, or a dedicated online collector seeking some bulk heirloom grain, we challenge you to seek out high quality food stuffs, so that you can be as super premium-ethical-delicious as what you eat.
To learn more about seed preservation, check out these organizations: