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Lend Us Your Ears: Peru’s Colorful Corn Cuisine

In the United States, corn is the iconic monocrop–the symbol for all that is wrong and out of touch in modern farming. Identical yellow ears can be found in every supermarket, at any time of year, thousands of miles apart but utterly indistinguishable from one another. The only widely available alternatives are sweet corn and popcorn, but these too are a nationalized commodity that vary little from place to place. Though immense diversity exists–a United States Department of Agriculture initiative in Ames, Iowa has collected the seeds of over 19,780 different types of corn from around the world–Americans seem to be on a yellow streak.

In Southern and Central America (where corn has been cultivated for at least 9,000 years), heirloom varieties are more widely available. Garden Collage recently visited Peru, where corn is an essential component of the cuisine–be it ground up in cornmeal cakes (sauco) or toasted and salted as a tasty bar snack (cancha).

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The two most popular strains of corn in Peru are choclo and mais morado, which are by and large unavailable in the United States (though they can be found in shops specializing in South and Central American cuisine). Slightly paler than yellow corn in the United States, choclo is grown in the Andes. It is larger, chewier, and less sweet, with a slightly nutty taste. Whole ears are sold with cheese along the streets, while more formal recipes serve choclo alongside simple ingredients like butter, lime, and cumin (choclo al comino).

Mais morado–whose name comes from its violet (morado) color–is used in the traditional Peruvian beverage chicha morada, a drink similar to sangria. Traditionally, the corn is chewed up and spat out into a container, at which point it is allowed to ferment, usually just with sugar. A tamer, and more widely-consumed version of the drink exists in which the corn is boiled in water with pineapple, quince, cinnamon, cloves, sugar, and lemon. After it has been strained, it can be chilled and served with fresh pineapple. When boiled, mais morado will turn the water dark purple and can be used to dye wool.

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In the past few years, American and European chefs have begun to draw on Peruvian flavors, incorporating the national cuisine’s intricate mix of indigenous Inca traditions with European, Asian, and African immigrant practices. The immense diversity of Peru’s food–both as a result of its varied influences and its varied topography–is what makes it incredibly delicious. Peru’s cuisine has evolved beyond the sum of its parts. The three most famous Peruvian culinary inventions–ceviche, anticuchos, and the Pisco sour–cannot be tied to any one of Peru’s influences. None can be attributed strictly to the Inca, nor the Spanish, nor the Africans, nor the Chinese. The dishes are instead a borderless union.

America has always congratulated itself on being a country of diverse backgrounds. But if we turn to our farming, it is clear the sentiment does not carry over to include equally diverse agriculture. As the United States’ consciousness around food choice continues to grow, other native Peruvian products, like quinoa and maca, have become more widely available. Yet the inescapable uniformity of corn in the United States (yellow, white, bi-color) remains steadfast, year in and year out. The time has come to start chasing rainbows.

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