Understanding the importance of corn in Mexican cooking

Corn on the cob
Corn on the cob

Joey Skladany is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

There are many dishes in this world that I crave regularly, but few elicit actual moans while I’m eating them. Mexican street corn, otherwise known as elote, falls into the latter category and is a native delicacy I always look forward to during trips to Mexico.

Corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise and topped with chili powder, lime juice, cotija cheese and cilantro is the embodiment of cuisine with a harmonious flavor balance: Sweet, salty, spicy, tangy and creamy.

But elote isn’t the only corn-based export to come from our southern neighbor. In fact, many Americans don’t realize that the whole grain is essentially the foundation of most authentic Mexican recipes — for all three daily meals (including dessert)!

Mario Lopez, executive chef of Grand Velas Riviera Maya, is an expert in preparing corn for the masses with the all-inclusive resort’s culinary-forward approach to local tourism. I chatted with the esteemed food leader about his take on corn and why it has always been at the heart of Mexican culture.

In The Know: What is the history of corn in Mexico?

Chef Mario Lopez: Corn is native to Mexico. Thanks to the remains of seeds found in Tehuacán, Puebla, we know that 7,000 years ago, it began being cultivated for consumption. Its cultivation was the livelihood of the Mesoamerican peoples.

Do locals in Mexico actually eat dishes like elote, or is it as touristy as an N.Y.C. street pretzel?

Corn is the basis of the Mexican diet. It knows no socioeconomic barriers, religions, regions, etc. It is the basis that sustains, from the Mesoamerican ancestral cuisine to the current contemporary Mexican cuisine expressed in some of the best restaurants in the world.

How is corn most commonly used in traditional Mexican dishes and beyond?

Corn is the cereal from which the Mexican tortilla comes from, which is the oldest symbol of Mexican cuisine. The daily consumption of tortillas in Mexico is approximately 300 million. The tortilla is the Mexican food for excellence and is also a source of vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals such as calcium, phosphorus and potassium. It represents a national symbol and is, without a doubt, the protagonist of Mexican dishes.

Corn is also used to produce many things beyond typical Mexican dishes such as quesadillas, esquites, tamales and popcorn. It is an essential ingredient of nearly 4,000 products, and some of the byproducts of corn are used, such as syrup, oil, flour and starch.

Sweet drinks like juices and soft drinks, as well as paint, paper, toothpaste and even cosmetics, are made with corn. Fuel for some automobiles, known as bioethanol, is also made from corn.

Do you have any hard and fast rules for making the *perfect* corn?

One of the most important varieties of corn is known as “cacahuazintle,” which is grown mainly in the center of the country in fertile volcanic lands. The best season is August and September, and a corn is ripe when crushing one of its grains literally “explodes” with juice between your fingers.

There are two very traditional ways of cooking it. The first is to add an herb called “pericón” to the water, also known as “Santa Maria.” It has a sweet smell and gives a slightly light brown color with herbaceous notes. It also has antibiotic properties and can counteract an upset stomach.

The second consists of cooking it with “tequesquite,” which is a mineral salt. In both methods, the corn is cooked in salted boiling water for about 20 minutes, but the traditional way of eating it is elote style with mayonnaise, fresh cheese, chili and lemon juice.

Are there any other corn-based dishes that you specialize in and think people should try?

I do not specialize in any specific preparation, but everyone should understand that the best corn dough comes from the nixtamalization process. The corn, water and quicklime soak yields nixtamal, which, after grinding, creates nixtamalized dough (otherwise known as masa), which is then used to make tortillas, tamales, etc.

What are some corn musts for anyone visiting Mexico City?

Do not forget to try the breakfast of many people: The “guajolota,” or tamale cake, which consists of a roll stuffed with a tamale. It is generally accompanied by another typical drink from Mexico — a champurrado atole — which consists of corn dough boiled with chocolate, cinnamon and water until it is thick. This is a quintessential combination of Mexican street food.

If you enjoyed this article, check out these six tips for making a dinner party more memorable!

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