Maize is a gigantic domesticated grass of tropical Mexican origin. The plant is used to produce grain and fodder that are the basis of a number of food, feed, pharmaceutical and industrial manufactures. Cultivation of maize and the elaboration of its food products are inextricably bound with the rise of pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilizations.
Due to its adaptability and productivity the culture of maize spread rapidly around the globe after Spaniards and other Europeans exported the plant from the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Maize is currently produced in most countries of the world and is the third most planted field crop (after wheat and rice). It is the European word for Corn.
The leafy stalk produces ears which contain the grain, which are seeds called kernels. Maize kernels are often used in cooking as a starch.
Maize and cornmeal (ground dried maize) constitute a staple food in many regions of the world.
Maize is central to Mexican food. Virtually every dish in Mexican cuisine uses maize. In form of grain or cornmeal, maize is the main ingredient of tortillas, tamales, pozole, atole and all the dishes based on them, like tacos, quesadillas, chilaquiles, enchiladas, tostadas and many more. In Mexico even a fungus of maize, known as huitlacoche is considered a delicacy and savored by gourmets.
Maize meal is made into a thick porridge in many cultures: from the polenta of Italy, the angu of Brazil, the mămăligă of Romania, to cornmeal mush in the U.S. (and hominy grits in the South) or the food called mealie pap in South Africa and sadza, nshima and ugali in other parts of Africa. Maize meal is also used as a replacement for wheat flour, to make cornbread and other baked products. Masa (cornmeal treated with limewater) is the main ingredient for tortillas, atole and many other dishes of Central American food.
Popcorn consists of kernels of certain varieties that explode when heated, forming fluffy pieces that are eaten as a snack. Roasted dried maize ears with semihardened kernels, coated with a seasoning mixture of fried chopped spring onions with salt added to the oil, is a popular snack food in Vietnam. Cancha, which are roasted maize chulpe kernels, are a very popular snack food in Peru, and also appears in traditional Peruvian ceviche. An unleavened bread called makki di roti is a popular bread eaten in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.
Chicha and chicha morada (purple chicha) are drinks typically made from particular types of maize. The first one is fermented and alcoholic, the second is a soft drink commonly drunk in Peru. Corn flakes are a common breakfast cereal in North America and the United Kingdom, and found in many other countries all over the world.
Maize can also be prepared as hominy, in which the kernels are soaked with lye in a process called nixtamalization; or grits, which are coarsely ground hominy. These are commonly eaten in the Southeastern United States, foods handed down from Native Americans, who called the dish sagamite.
The Brazilian dessert canjica is made by boiling maize kernels in sweetened milk. Maize can also be harvested and consumed in the unripe state, when the kernels are fully grown but still soft. Unripe maize must usually be cooked to become palatable; this may be done by simply boiling or roasting the whole ears and eating the kernels right off the cob. Sweet corn, a genetic variety that is high in sugars and low in starch, is usually consumed in the unripe state. Such corn on the cob is a common dish in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Cyprus, some parts of South America, and the Balkans, but virtually unheard of in some European countries. Corn on the cob was hawked on the streets of early 19th-century New York City by poor, barefoot “Hot Corn Girls”, who were thus the precursors of hot dog carts, churro wagons, and fruit stands seen on the streets of big cities today. The cooked, unripe kernels may also be shaved off the cob and served as a vegetable in side dishes, salads, garnishes, etc. Alternatively, the raw unripe kernels may also be grated off the cobs and processed into a variety of cooked dishes, such as maize purée, tamales, pamonhas, curau, cakes, ice creams, etc.
Maize is a major source of starch. Cornstarch (maize flour) is a major ingredient in home cooking and in many industrialized food products. Maize is also a major source of cooking oil (corn oil) and of maize gluten. Maize starch can be hydrolyzed and enzymatically treated to produce syrups, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener; and also fermented and distilled to produce grain alcohol. Grain alcohol from maize is traditionally the source of Bourbon whiskey. Maize is sometimes used as the starch source for beer. Within the United States, the usage of maize for human consumption constitutes about 1/40th of the amount grown in the country. In the United States and Canada, maize is mostly grown to feed for livestock, as forage, silage (made by fermentation of chopped green cornstalks), or grain. Maize meal is also a significant ingredient of some commercial animal food products, such as dog food.