Friday, January 24, 2014

Chè bắp hột ngăm vôi | Nixtamal & tapioca pudding

Native corn harvest
What follows is a recipe for chè bắp | a sweet corn pudding made with tapioca pearls and coconut milk.  In order to make this a more nutritious dish, I will use corn kernels made from organic, heirloom native corn grown in my front yard and nixtamalized (alkalinized to be digestible and maximize its nutrients, very similar to hominy).  I hardly know how to write this recipe without getting into childhood memories, cultural foodways, and contemporary life.  So here goes:

Maize Foodways

While in current times, corn is so ubiquitous it can be invisible in American foods (about which Michael Pollan has tried to raise awareness), and worldwide, corn is one of the top 3 cereals/grains produced, its globalization, genetic modification, and industrial agricultural practices have combined to make corn a sugar-dense, nutritionally empty frankenfood.  But rather than dismiss corn altogether, it behooves us to remember its history and cultural practices in its consumption.  Before the current popularity of quinoa, chia, goji, maize was one of the original globalized "superfoods."  Cultivated in Central America over 7,000 years ago maize sustainined major civilizations from the Olmec, Aztec, Maya, Inca, Iroquois, Navaho, and Zuni.  In the 15th Century, colonization and the Columbian Exchange spread maize to all corners of the earth.

While superfoods are great at introducing new foods to our omnivorous diets, they come with the serious problem of being stripped of their cultural foodways & context.  When corn was globalized during the colonization era (aka "Enlightenment"), the cultural foodways of nixtamalization--storing/cooking it with ash or slaked lime/calcium carbonate to unlock its nutritional value--were not brought with it, which means that untreated corn is largely indigestible. Hence when you eat whole corn kernels, the kernel is visible almost whole as the end product of digestion to put it politely (for the impolite, this means corn poop). 

Nixtamalization. . . The alkaline steeping and wet milling of corn for table use remain distinctly American practices. Although corn has spread across the globe, the preparation of nixtamal and hominy has stayed in the Americas.  "Beautiful Corn: America’s Original Grain from Seed to Plate," by Anthony Boutard
Native corn in my front yard
When maize was introduced as a new crop staple in Africa and Europe 500 years ago supplanting native grains and tubers, the eating of it caused widespread pellagra.  While we'd think in this day and age, we'd have figured out that corn needs to be nixtamalized to be a nutritious staple grain, even still there is a "disease" called kwashiokor in South Africa which only afflicts children who have weaned and eat mostly corn-based food and low protein.  It still befuddles me that the practice of alkalizing maize to make it digestible and nutritious has not been exported to countries where corn has become a staple and thereby prevent widespread famine and nutritional deficiency rather than band aid solutions like niacin fortification after the fact.

Aside: Kinda makes you think about the recent waves of globalized foods and what missing/lost/forgotten foodways may affect its consumption.  For example the practice of sprouting grains and seeds to counteract the anti-nutrients and maximize their nutritional value has largely been lost through industrialization. Get on that UNESCO.

Me and Mrs. Corn, Mrs. Corn, Mrs. Corn

we got a thiiiiiing goin' on.

In Việt Nam, where corn now is the second most important crop after rice, corn is mainly a snack food; corn is eaten untreated on the cob or in chè bắp, and surprisingly, as nixtamal mixed with sweet rice & mung bean (xôi bắp).  I'm not sure when the nixtamalization was introduced and why it is in a delimited way.

I have very fond memories of chè bắp | corn coconut pudding in my childhood.  My ông bà | grandparents grew multi-colored native corn in Việt Nam which was introduced via China tradeways during the Ming Dynasty from the Columbian Exchange over five hundred years ago (sorry Mac from Night Court, corn was not an American introduction) and one of the treats they would make after harvesting is chè bắp.  Stateside, mom would buy sweet corn on the cob and shave off the kernels.  She'd simmer the kernels and the cobs together with sugar for what felt like forever til cooked.  Then she'd remove the cobs and add coconut milk to the kernels, garnishing with toasted sesame seeds.  We 3 kids would fight over who got to gnaw the sweet nubs left on the cobs.  One year when I was 10, I received a small packet of popcorn seeds as something like a cracker jack prize.  We were living with my ông bà ngoại|maternal grandparents, two of my aunties, one cousine, and three uncles that year on Auburn Dr. (I am horrible with dates and had a nomadic childhood, so I mark time by where I lived at the time); we three siblings and mom shared futon mattresses in the living room.  I gave the seeds to my  bà ngoại who along with my ông ngoại had transformed the backyard and the part of the publicly owned hill behind it into a terraced subsistence garden (this is before hipsters mainstreamed urban and guerilla gardening, back when it was denigrated, still illegal and mainly done by people of color, refugees, and immigrants).  My bà ngoại stuck the 3 seeds in a small strip of dirt along the front fence.  I was amazed to watch them sprout.  I don't remember if we ate them but if ông bà ngoại had to stretch the meager ears among 12 people, most likely she made chè bắp.

The girls playing in the husks at the Ardenwood Harvest Festival.
Cut forward 20 + years later to 2012, my family had a playdate with 2 other families at the Harvest Festival in Ardenwood to harvest heirloon, organic native corn.  The refugee/immigrants in us took over and we harvested a grip of native corn ears.  We didn't have a plan or idea of what to do with our booty.  So all the corn languished for a year.  I finally dragged the ears out to an impromptu corn shucking & milling bee at my homesteading girlfriend's house (there is a cosmic reason why shuck rhymes with a curse word and that's because it is brutal on your fingers to shuck dried corn on the cob.  Christina is a good friend).  I used the corn flour to make some delicious violet cornbread.   I reserved a few pounds with the idea of making hominy and a big pot o' pozole which never happened.

My corn rows

Last summer I was still recovering from adrenal fatigue burnout and I felt my energy coming back. I impulsively dug a guerilla garden in our southern-facing front lawn.  Boxed in by the Niles foothills with little tree cover, our southern-facing front yard caught the brunt of the summer sun and was scorching.  So I chose heat-loving heritage crops--watermelons and native corn, and unlike my meticulous husband, I forwent any planning or consideration of soil or knowledge/experience of gardening and dug holes in the previously green lawn.  I forwent any fancy germination, reasoning that putting seeds in the soil is an age-old practice of growing things.  I dug holes,  dropped in a few kernels of my native corn leftovers and a scoop of compost, worm casings.  Later I decided to adopt the Three Sisters model of growing corn to little success (squash did well until it frosted, legumes were way overshadowed).  In spite of me, my corn really thrived.  Losing steam, I didn't harvest it at the peak of ripeness to try eating it on the cob, instead letting it dry for milling and nixtamal/hominy.
Dried & shucked corn kernels

This week my daughter VL's kindergarten class learned about corn;  they learned how to hand grind nixtamal with a metate to make masa, and learned how to hand make tortillas.   I volunteered some beautiful cobs, kernels for planting, and Chè bắp for the potluck Corn Feast.
Gorgeous dried native corn cobs

My contribution will be a more nutritious twist on my childhood favorite--chè bắp using nixtamalized native corn using the method I found from Mother Earth News.  I botched the nixtamal the first time around, but fortunately native corn is forgiving (so not being ironic or apocryphal here) so I did a second round and achieved the right texture.


The many names of CaO2: 
calcium hydroxide, slaked lime,
pickling lime, builder's lime,
vôi (Việt), choona (South Asia),
cal (Latin America).  Used in
 cooking, chews, gardening, 
and making houses.
This needs to be made in advance of the chè by a couple of days.


  • 1.5 lbs of dried corn
  • 25 g of pickling lime (2 tbs)
  • water

Put corn kernels & pickling lime in a stainless steel or enamel pot.  Add enough water to cover by two inches.  Simmer on the stove without a lid for 30 minutes to alkalinize the kernels.  Do not boil.  Remove from heat.  Cover with lid and allow to soak overnight.

Simmering in slaked lime

I was making dinner at the same time and ignored the covered pot and when the 30 min was up, I notice it was at a low boil.  Yikes. I left it overnight and went on to the next step of cooking but it was still hard, so I repeated the pickling lime simmering without a lid for another 30 min.  Native corn is coarser than sweet corn so it probably needs more than 30 min to alkalinize.

Pour off the lime mixture into the garden or compost.  Rinse kernels well.   Put into steel pot, cover with one inch of water and simmer for 40-60 minutes to soften.   Salt the water and allow to cool.  Makes about 3 lbs of nixtamal. 

Comparison of dried kernels and nixtamal

Chè bắp hột ngăm vôi | Nixtamal & tapioca pudding

Frozen coconut milk, no additives
  • 1 lb nixtamal
  • 1/2 cup small tapioca pearls
  • 1/3-3/4 c palm sugar or coconut palm sugar to taste or fruit syrup*
  • 16 oz of coconut milk (recipe here)**
Rinse tapioca pearls.  Soak tapioca pearls in cold water for 20 min.

Boil a pot of water.  When it is boiling add tapioca while stirring constantly so they separate and they don't stick to the bottom of the pan and scorch.  Lower the heat and cook until the pearls are mostly translucent.  Add nixtamal and coconut sugar and simmer for until the pearls are translucent.  The coconut sugar will give this a nice caramel color.  Turn off the heat and add coconut milk. 

*I've recently watched Dr. Robert Lustig's TED talk where he lists the 56 names of sugar.  While coconut palm sugar was not one of the named and has a lower glycemic index, it still is a refined sugar.

**Tropical Traditions recipe for making your own coconut milk hereIf you are using frozen,give the package a quick rinse before opening to remove any residue, dirt, etc.

Ăn cho Ngon Lành|Eat Delectably!

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