In most recipes that list corn as an ingredient, we will find an add-on, that has not been given the attention it really deserves: Juniper Ash. Ash is highly alkaline. Mixing juniper ash with water or adding the ash directly to the corn and then mixing it with water, creates an alkali solution. Only lately has the alkaline processing of corn been fully understood by modern science. In effect, without alkali processing of corn, there would be a considerable degree of malnutrition in societies where corn is the major part of the diet.
We can assume, that the alkali treatment in the preparation of corn for food, gave rise to the Mayan and Aztec cultures.
The first household equipment for Nixtamalization, as this treatment is called, was found on the south coast of Guatemala, and dates back to 1500 – 1200 B.C. (In the Aztec language Nahuatl, the word for the product of this procedure is nixtamalli or nextamalli . The Nahuatl word is a compound of nextli “ashes” and tamalli “unformed corn dough, tamal.)
The secrets of alkali processing, having their roots in the Mesoamerican cultures, were inherited and transmitted by the cultures of the Southwest: the Anasazi and their descendants living in the contemporary pueblo villages. We find a lot of identical recipes and similar ways of preparing corn among the Native American Nations here in the Southwest: be it Diné, Zuni, Hopi, Tohono O’odham or Apache or any of the Pueblo villages along the Rio Grande. And of course, also in the population of Spanish descend.
No matter what their source for ash, all the Native American cultures have essentially the same process for preparing corn into dough. Ash is stirred into hot water, then the mixture is strained.
Alkali cooking frees otherwise unavailable nutrients, which are not absent in corn but locked in. These are the benefits:
- deeper flavor
- it takes the hull off the corn
- softens the corn kernels, more easily ground
- nutritional value increased
- allows dough formation
- enhances the quality of corn protein: it alters the protein content to make it a more complete protein
- it makes the niacin in corn more absorbable in the human body
- enriches the corn with needed minerals: increases calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium content
- it significantly reduces molds that commonly infect corn
Many recipes you see ask for baking soda to substitute for juniper ashes – baking soda has neither the flavor nor the mineral content of the ashes!
Blue corn meal mush with juniper ash has 802 mg of calcium in one cup, compared to 2.4 mg of the same amount without ash. Ash is also superior to baking soda in boiled hominy corn. The ash adds calcium and Vitamin A. However, the baking soda does not add calcium but sodium which can increase hypertension.