As I cross paths with students that are curious of how the indigenous of Mexico and other Central/South America countries discovered the process of nixtamalization, it is a reminder that our modern society is disconnected and losing the valuable knowledge of our ancestors. The indigenous had wisdom of food without the technologically advanced equipment to “prove” that certain processes made nutrients in food bioavailable for absorption in our bodies. When the Spanish arrived to these corn eating cultures, they were eager to take their new “discovery” without the knowledge of nixtamalization back home. As corn spread through Europe, people suffered from malnutrition and diseases such as pellagra because the corn was not digestible in their bodies.
Corn belongs to the teosinte family of grasses which are mostly not digestible to humans. If you look at the anatomy of a cow, the cow’s have a rumen with microbes to digest grasses. The indigenous discovered the process of nixtamal to make corn digestable for humans.
“Nixtamal” is a Nahuatl word for the process of alkalizing and grinding maize, similar to hominy, which refers to the same process. (“Maize” is a Taino word for corn.) This process is what made corn a nutritious staple to many indigenous cultures. Nixtamalization occurs when you cook corn in an alkaline solution such as ashes, calcium lime, pickling lime, etc. We boil our corn with 2 tablespoons of pickling lime for 30 minutes and then cover and turn the heat off. Then leave the corn in the boiled water overnight. The heat and alkalinity react with the kernel and make essential amino acids and B vitamins bioavailable. This biochemical reaction also increases calcium and other minerals. This process reduces phytic acid, which inhibits absorption of zinc, calcium and other minerals and also reduces mycotoxin, which is a toxin present in corn.
In the morning, we rub the corn with our hands so that the outer skin falls off. We wash and the corn is ready to use. You may grind it through a manual or electric grinder. We use a food processor to grind the corn and we add a tablespoon of water if it is not grinding well.
Usually the grinded corn is ready to use without adding any water when we take it out of the food processor. We then roll it out on a piece of banana leaf or plastic. If you are having trouble rolling it, then add some water 1 tablespoon at a time. Then cover with another piece of banana leaf or plastic and press down with a plate to flatten. If it is round, place on an oiled pan and cook. Sometimes we roll in a variety of shapes or we use a bowl as a stencil if we wish to have it round and are having trouble rolling a circle. Press the bowl on the rolled out masa, remove the extra masa and we have a round tortilla. Now place on an oiled hot pan. Our favorite is a cast iron pan that is slightly oiled.
Most store bought corn or packaged corn products such as tacos, tortilla chips, tortillas have not undergone the nixtamal process. These products are not digestable. This may be an incentive to make your own corn “masa”. If you choose to take on this task, note that it is also important to choose a high quality corn, one produced without chemicals to increase energetic value for your body.
Consuming food that can not be digested by your body leads to “ama” or toxins. Ama is formed when food is left ingested in our body. Over time this leads to disease. If you are interested in learning more about ayurveda and preparing digestable foods customized to suit your body, please check out our Ayurveda Cooking Workshops and Courses. We combine the technological advances of modern society with the ancestral knowledge of our roots.