Examine the ingredients of your favorite corn tortilla chips and a likely first ingredient is corn treated with lime. Why squeeze lime on the corn? In the context of Mexican food it only seems natural since everything south of the border gets a squeeze of lime (in my mind at least).
The other day while eating some corn tortilla chips and salsa, I was reading the label on the chips and noticed the list of Spanish ingredients did not read maíz tratado con limón verde like I thought it would since the English ingredients read corn treated with lime. Instead the translation was maís nixtamalizado. The word nixtamalizado screams out indigenous and so it caught my attention. I ran this by a coworker and fellow language lover. He said that they treated the corn with limestone, not lime, and maybe the word nixtamalizado harkens back to the tradition of treating corn with ashes before grinding it up. He was right!
Nixtamalli is the Nahuatl (language of the Aztec) predecessor of nixtamalizado. It’s a combination of nextli or ashes and tamalli or unformed corn dough. And at this point we have uncovered yet another word, tamales! Like all good New Mexicans I enjoy tamales from time to time, usually around Christmas. Tamales are corn dough stuffed with cheese or meat and then wrapped in a cornhusk and boiled or steamed. Tamal refers to the corn dough!
Back on track though, the first grains treated with lime were in Mesoamerica. These early people would boil the corn in an alkaline solution made with limestone dust and ash. This solution actually made the grain easier to grind, more nutritious, more flavorful and less likely to contain dangerous mold. Talk about a win-win!
When corn was introduced to Europe, Africa and Asia the process of nixtamalization was unfortunately not adopted along with it. These places were already removing husks mechanically in mills. Therefore, when corn became a major staple of these diets the corn was left untreated and less nutritious. Malnutrition epidemics broke out, especially in Europe. A lack of niacin was the main culprit. Pellagra, a horrific disease affecting the skin (literally meaning pelle-skin agra-sour), looks like leprosy and eventually kills the person affected.
This is a good reminder of how seriously we can be affected by a vitamin or mineral deficiency. Suddenly I’m craving kale, spinach, ash and limestone!