Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure) on the Aztec favourite snack and why you should try it this rainy season – aside your favourite bhutta special.
By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Sanchez
Few things make rainy season more festive like corn on the cob – a simple yet outrageously addictive street food that finds as many versions across the culinary world as the countries it has conquered over the past 10,000 years since wild maize was domesticated from a large wild grass called teosinte that once grew abundantly in Mexico, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Fascinatingly, the original corn, say anthropologist, was nothing like the version we find (and are fond of) today. They were rather crude and took years of evolution and grafting to reach a stage where it could become an integral part of the culinary fabric and then travelled the world. In fact, such was the spell of this instant food that soon it became a much-accepted currency of sailors and travellers alike who used corn to enter a trade circuit or merely explore a new culture and continent like the famous sailor Christopher Columbus who used corn as not only his great offering but also was instrumental in popularising it. Thanks to him, corn arrived on the shores of India as well – and also the traditional way of enjoying it as well. A fine example of this is the corn on the cob, says cuisine specialist Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure), who believes it to be one of the earliest ways that corn, an ingredient known for its inherent sweetness and easy chewability, especially when tender, was enjoyed in its early years. What gives credence to Chef Seth’s conviction is Elote. Also referred to as the Mexican corn on the cob, Elote, which is Spanish for corn, is essentially corn boiled or grilled and served after being pixie-dusted with salt, chilli powder, butter, cotija cheese, lime juice, and crema fresca, and in recent times with mayonnaise for that interesting twang. A popular street food – you would find elotero around cities of Mexico who would often grill tender corn, coat it with the mix as this sweet-spicy treat to be had on the go. Such is the fondness for elotes that it isn’t just one of must-haves of the Aztec cuisine but also an integral part of Mexican food tapestry – and a much loved, explains Chef Seth, “accompaniment to grilled meats and in Sanchez, to the burrito bowl.” What makes it so addictive, he continues, “especially to the Indian palate is not only the familiar sweetness of corn but also the fact that we have a similar version called aabu chaali, which is the original bhutta special where fresh corn is grilled-roasted and served after being slathered with a mix of chilli powder, kala namak or rock salt and lime juice. The slight difference between the two is the slight creaminess that Elote has over aabu chaali, which derives the amazing, buttery sweetness to the native variety that grows here.”
Interestingly, it is not the Elote that finds itself brethren around the world and is loved for its simplicity and flavour layering – each version of this corn on the cob is an ode to the palate culture of the region – its gourmet cousin Esquite, or as the Spanish would call “elotitutl” roughly translated as “tender cob”, too has been an equally influential innovation, albeit not so widely. Served in a cup or traditionally in a bowl made of corn ears, Esquite, it is said, was the creation of Tlaxocihualpili, the woman ruler of Xochimilco (1335 to 1347). Folklore has it that the queen though loved corn wasn’t too fond of the street ways of having it and became instrumental in creating a version that was modern, richer and befitting the royal tables of Xochimilo. The name: Esquite, where the corn instead of being grilled is boiled, the kernels removed and then mixed with chopped onion, fried green chilli, and pollo and topped with lime juice, sour cream, cotija, chilli, and seasoned to taste. In fact, the classic way of serving Esquite, explains Chef Seth, “is by layering each of the ingredients before finishing with boiled corn and a dash of lime. However, depending on the region of Mexico the add-ons vary. Take for instance Aguascalientes. Here Esquite, also called chasks, have bacon, mushroom, and strips of chilli in them. The one served in Tampico is made with boiled instead of fried corn; in Sonora, it is a sweet treat that is cooked with molasses and finally in Hidalgo, it is made with pulque, onion, chilli, and epazote.”
However, adds the Mexican cuisine specialist, “the one that is most popular among tourists and locals alike is the Queen’s version that is found through the year. The only change that has happened through the years to the original is the introduction of mayonnaise, which plays contrast to the sweetness of the choclo corn and has been instrumental in aiding Esquite to transcend boundaries where cojita cheese may not be easily available. Used in the right proportion, mayo not only mimics the cheese well but to a certain extend pares down the need for sour cream as well. Plus, it appeals to a wider palate too.” These were some of the key considerations that was taken when Chef Seth designed his version of the Esquite, which is an ode to the local variety of corn that grows here. The Esquite that we serve in Sanchez is uses most of the traditional ingredients including the mayonnaise with one small difference: instead of the cojita cheese, we use a blend of parmesan and feta cheese to get the same palate play.” As a matter of fact, the cheese combination is also used to give the Elotes that Chef Seth serves in his restaurant, its distinct flavour profile and addictiveness.
Which brings to the question, what made these corn dishes relevant today? Aside, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the fact that corn packs in quite the punch when it comes to protein (8 grams), fibre, minerals, vitamin B, it comes loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin. Essentially carotenoids that help keep our eyes in pristine condition and BP in check by preventing the build-up of fatty deposits in arteries. Thus, making corn one of the nature’s essential food pill that needs relatively minimal cooking. However, it does lacks in lysine and isoleucine that helps metabolise the other nutritive properties of the corn and requires the support of other protein rich produces like tofu, chicken, nuts, lentils, and cheese.”
That while explains the role of Elote as an omnipresent accompaniment in many of the dishes in Mexico, it also lays out why both the corn dishes’ relevance as a functional food. Clearly the Aztecs knew a thing or two of how to not extend the usage of corn but also extract its properties for good health. In fact, wellness was one of the reasons that the ancient cooks invented the process called nixtamalization: corn kernels were soaked in an alkaline solution (such as limewater) and peeled. This not only made corn more edible but led to the birth of the twin story of Elote and Esquite – Mexico’s famous street food.