Getting corn-y in the streets of Peru

Preeti Verma Lal, October 08, 2016

In Peru, getting corny is as easy as counting up to 60. Do not go by the dictionary, please. In this South American country, corny is not being trite, banal or mawkishly sentimental.

There are 60 varieties of corn grown in this region that are nothing like the yellow variety we see everywhere. Here, they come in a riot of colours – purple, black, orange, white, red and more.

Corn kernels are the size of a dime and are used to dye wool. In food, they are boiled, steamed, popped or toasted to make snacks, meals and even drinks. Corn is even milled to bake cakes and bread. Cancha, the Peruvian roasted corn, is the ancestor of modern popcorn.

In Peru, corn is the kitchen monarch. Peruvians sure know a thing or two about corn — they have been growing the grain since 1200 BC. Maize cobs and husks from archaeological sites in the country hint that the grain’s popularity dates as far back as the Incas. In 300 AD, the inhabitants of Peru’s northern coast invented the world’s oldest known corn popper — a shallow vessel with a handle and a hole on top. That was 1,500 years before the first popcorn machine made its debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In Moray,

Peruvians had a circular open-air terraced laboratory to hybridise and create various kinds of corn suitable for different terrains and climate. The ancient economy – and the food – was driven by corn.

At the heart of Peru’s corn call is choclo, a giant white grain with kernels the size of a dime. Known as Cuzco corn (after the city of Cusco, the capital of the Incan
empire), choclo is an Andean variety with extra large, bulbous kernels almost five times bigger than North American corn. Choclo’s chewy kernels, though large,
do not get stuck between the teeth.

So, there is no need to floss after biting into a large cob! Not surprisingly, the Incans (of the mid 15th to mid 16th centuries) widely toasted this creamy textured corn as a snack.

The purple corn is used to make chica, a local drink. Chica morada is a non-alcoholic purple corn beverage; while chica de jora is the alcoholic version. If you see red plastic bags hoisted on large poles outside a Peruvian house, walk in for a drink. That’s a welcome sign. And before you knock down the fermented beverage, swirl it.
In ancient times, women would chew the corn in their saliva-filled mouths to ferment it. A saliva-fermented drink. Imagine that. Do not be grossed out — the purple corn drink has more antioxidants than blueberries; its phytochemicals reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.

In Peru, corn is baked into cakes and bread, and added to ceviche, the national dish. Boiled or roasted corn, with a dash of chilli and crumbled feta, make for the perfect street food.

“Corn can grow several inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it,” said writer Laura Ruby.

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