Maize, or Corn as we call it in America, is a staple crop of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America. This crop was used for much more than the sweet corn on the cob it has become known for. In fact, it is made to make a number of breads, not just in the Americas. This staple food has also become an important food in parts of Northern Africa.
The Making of Corn Flour and Corn Meal
Corn by itself is difficult to digest and much of its nutrition is indigestible. For this reason corn can cause those who rely on it for their diet to get sick from malnutrition. However, there is a process that makes corn easier to digest called nixtamalization.
Nixtamalization is a process where the grain is soaked in an alkaline solution, such as lime water. It is then washed and hulled. This process is needed to make a good corn flour in order to make a staple of southern meals: cornbread.
Hominy is corn that has been put through the nixtamalization process. When put through the nixtamalization process corn is not only easier to digest, it also has more nutritional value, is easier to grind and has a more full flavor and aroma than unprocessed corn.
Corn flour and corn meal differ in their consistency. Corn flour is finer than corn meal and must be ground from hominy. Corn meal is coarser and can be made from unprocessed corn.
Types of Cornbread
Corn was domesticated in Mexico first, around six-thousand years ago. It traveled north and south, covering much of North and South America by one-thousand years ago. Corn requires a longer growing period and warmer climate so it could only travel so far before the growing season became too short.
When Columbus “found” America he set off something we now refer to as the Columbian Exchange. This brought items like coffee, chicken, apples, onions, and smallpox to the Americas. In exchange things native to the Americas like tomatoes, chocolate, pumpkin, tobacco, and syphilis went to the old world.
For more about the Columbian Exchange, check out this video I made explaining it’s significance to food.
As this exchange happened, one thing that got exchanged was corn. Like apples and chicken have become staples in American cooking, some of the American crops have become staples around the world. Corn is now found in food around the world. In this article we will just stick to corn breads.
I could not possibly list all the different corn breads here. Instead I will pick a few types of corn breads from the Americas and some from other places in the world.
American Corn Breads
Corn bread in the south of North America became popular out of necessity. This simple bread was dense and bland, made from only cornmeal and water. However, the wheat that grew readily in more northern climates did not do well in the southern heat, just like corn did not do well in the northern cold.
To make the bread more palatable and a better texture, they started adding things to it, like bacon grease, butter, milk, and more. Sugar was not needed as corn was already sweet. That is until grinding became more efficient.
As the mills replaced the stone grinders with more efficient steel ones, the rollers got hotter, removing some of the sweetness from the cornmeal it produced. This required the addition of sweeteners to keep the sweetness.
- Baked Cornbread: The most common type of cornbread you will find in the United States. There are two major variants depending on where you live.
- Northern Cornbread: In the north they use a mixture of finely ground yellow corn meal, wheat flour, egg, oil, and a sweetener. Here is a recipe from Bless This Mess Please.
- Southern Cornbread: In the south they like the less finely ground white cornmeal and leave out the sweetener. Making southern cornbread less cake-like and less sweet than its norther counterpart. They often include buttermilk like this recipe from Feast and Farm.
- Corn Pone: Sometimes called by the misnomer Indian Pone, this is made by taking a simple mixture of corn meal, salt, and water and it is then fried in bacon grease. Here is a recipe by The Kitchn.
- Hushpuppies: A deep fried spicy cornbread this dough usually includes spicy seasoning or jalapenos. Here is a recipe from Small Town Woman.
- Johnny Cakes: These pancakes are fried over the stove and sometimes served with syrup. Here is a recipe from The Daring Gourmet. For more about Johnny Cakes, and How Cakes, see this article I wrote about slave foods.
Native Corn breads
There are many corn breads that were made prior to Columbus. Some are still available today. Some have changed to add in ingredients that were not available prior to the Columbian Exchange. Below is a short list of some of the corn bread items that can be found throughout the Americas.
- Tamales: Tamales are a cornmeal mixture that is filled with various fillings, rolled, and then baked or steamed. These can include:
- Acaçá from Brazil.
- Tamales from Mexico.
- Pasteles from the Caribbean.
- Nacatamal from Nicaragua.
- and more.
- Pupusas: A mix of corn meal and rice flour is used to make these flatbreads from El Salvador and Honduras.
- Totopo: A cornmeal flatbread popular in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
- Piki: A Hopi recipe that has been around for more than 500 years. The Hopi are a Native American tribe who live primarily on their reservation in Arizona.
- Tortillas: A popular flat bread of Latin America can be made of corn or wheat flour. It is often filled and rolled into a wrap. It can also be cut and fried to make chips.
- Kush: This is the precursor to cornbread stuffing. Made by enslaved Africans in various parts of the United States, this pan fried dish comes in various versions, some sweet, some savory.
Corn Breads from Outside the Americas
The majority of corn breads are from within the Americas, but there are some that have made their stand in other parts of the world as well.
- Mălai cu lapte: I believe this translates as corn with milk. This is a Romanian dish that pairs a sweet cake with a chocolate glaze.
- Talo: Similar to a corn tortilla, this bread is from the Basque region of Spain and France.
- Wotou: This steamed corn bread is found in Northern Chinese Cuisine.
- Makki Ki Roti: This flatbread from Punjab, India can be baked in a Tandoori or in a cast iron skillet.