And how nixtamalization changed the world
“Every different kind of maize makes a different atole,” Amado Ramírez Leyva says. The possibilities are endless. Attempts to quantify the different species of maize in Mexico, or even just in the state of Oaxaca, are futile. The nomenclature is further complicated by the plant’s tendency to cross-breed over great distances, the near-infinite genetic possibilities inside its seeds, first domesticated by indigenous people in the Central Balsas River Valley around ten thousand years ago. No one knows for sure when people first made maize into this smooth, thick, warm breakfast drink, but Amado, owner of Itanoní Tortillería & Antojería in Oaxaca’s capital city, holds these kitchen traditions dearly. The small restaurant has been serving local maize-based foods and beverages prepared using traditional methods for almost fifteen years.
Atole can be either sweet or savory. Masa dough is mixed with water, flavored with sugar or spices, then whipped with a wooden molinillo, a metal whisk, or a pair of expert hands into a vibrant, energizing concoction. These days, sweet atoles are served with a sweet pan de yema bun, but according to Luz Calvo, a professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay and author of Decolonize Your Diet: Mexican-American Plant-Based Recipes for Health and Healing, traditionally, “savory versions were served with herbs, beans, or chiles.” She adds, “One can imagine that this was a meal in itself.”
Itanoní sticks to the basics: blanco (plain white corn), panela (dark cane sugar), and champurrado (sweet and full of chocolate), but any combination of flavors is possible. Amado mentions a family recipe with chile and avocado leaf, a pungent spice often compared to bay laurel. In the nearby mountain village of Cuajimoloyas, a frothy atole is prepared with the blood-red achiote, a subtle seed spice from a plant sometimes called the lipstick tree. Fruit and nuts are common additions.
What appears to be the equivalent of a thin cream of wheat or a cup of nutty hot chocolate might not seem like it would make the most filling breakfast, but atole is something special, thanks in no small part to a process known as nixtamalization. Traditionally, dried maize kernels are soaked in a calcium-based solution, using lime calcium, sea shells, wood ash, or any other easily accessible source. This alkaline solution is heated gently in clay pots over a wood fire for several hours, slowly breaking down the cells of the corn to create a more digestible food. After cooling, the kernels are rubbed vigorously to remove the protective outer layer, then ground by hand on a comal with water until it becomes a heavy dough, called masa. This dough forms the basis of an endless variety of corn-based food and drink.
“Dried corn loses some of the nutrients of fresh corn,” Calvo explains. “The nixtamalization process brings back those nutrients and adds calcium. Nixtamalization releases niacin and protein. It also adds calcium and it reduces any mold or fungus that might be on the dried corn. It also has the benefit of allowing the cook to form a dough (masa) with the nixtamalized corn by grinding it. Regular dried corn, when ground, just falls apart and crumbles.”
In other words, nixtamal changed the world.
“Nixtamalization allowed corn to be grown during the growing season and then dried for use throughout the year,” Calvo says. It gave indigenous people the freedom to build grain stores, and played a crucial role in the development of advanced civilizations like the Aztec and Maya. It was the huge leap forward that created established cities from the nomadic communities that followed the seasons and the seeds that sustained them.
If nixtamal changed the face of civilization, atole revolutionized breakfast. Hot, portable, comforting, delicious, and packed full of vitamins, minerals, and plenty of bioavailable protein, atole is a vegan’s delight, and an ideal early meal on a continent where meat animals were small and mostly wild, and quality protein was often hard to come by.
Breakfast shakes and meal-replacement drinks have always made me feel deprived, like I was missing out on the infinite pleasures of real food. Atole is real food, the kind of magic that comes from an integrated connection to its source, a vision for sustainable agriculture, and an experimental curiosity for finding creative solutions to the needs of growing communities.