August 1st, 2011

nixtamal and hominy

nixtamal, noun.  Maize kernels treated with alkali.
Etymology:  from the Nahuatl words nextli, ashes, and tamalli, corn dough (source of the English word tamale).

hominy, noun.  Whole or ground nixtamal.  Very similar to nixtamal, but with a North American word origin instead of a Mesoamerican one.
Etymology:  a shortened version of rockahominy, which is derived from the Algonquin word rokeamen or aparunmenan, parched corn, one of the Native Americans' first gifts to the European colonists.

Nixtamalization is a way to process grain (usually corn), where the grain is cooked and soaked in an alkali solution and then hulled.  This process makes niacin more available for absorption, improves the available protein, increases mineral content, and reduces potentially carcinogenic mycotoxins.  At the end of the process, the hull is removed, likewise usually the germ, and excess alkali solution is washed off the corn. 

The process has been around for many centuries, but sometimes when the grain was adopted into a new culture, the process was not brought along.  Heavy reliance on unprocessed corn can lead to nutritional deficiencies such as pellagra; pellagra epidemics were recorded in Europe in the 19th century and in the Southern United States in the early 20th century.

Different cultures have used different alkali solutions, involving lime (calcium hydroxide), ash (potassium hydroxide), lye (sodium hydroxide), or soda ash (sodium carbonate).  In products sold commercially in America today, lime is most commonly used, or else protease enzymes are used for a similar effect.

Hominy or nixtamal can be used in a variety of ways:  whole in menudo, coarsely ground for grits, finely ground for tortillas, etc.