Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chilean Corn (Choclo Chileno)

On August 27, 1540 in the valley of the Copiapó River some 500 miles north of the eventual location of Santiago, Pedro de Valdivia took possession of Chile in the name of the King of Spain. It was a favorable spot:

In this valley…. maize stalks grow larger and thicker than I have ever seen in any other province through which I have traveled and I have never seen any yield as well as in this valley, because in the other provinces each stalk yields two or three ears, and here four or five.  It is very good maize. (Jerónimo de Vivar, 1558)[1]
From there in the Atacama Desert south 1,200 miles, to the rainy Island of Chiloe, the native people of Chile cultivated maize (or corn, Zea mays;  choclos in Chilean Spanish).  It was the major crop and staple food for 1000 miles or so, and a secondary crop to potatoes in the far south.

Central Chile has a Mediterranean climate, with warm dry summers and mild winters with moderate rains, increasing to the south.  But from October through February, the growing season for corn, Santiago receives only about an inch (30 mm) of rain in most years; far too little for maize.  But the indigenous Mapuche, or their predecessors, developed irrigation. Jesuit Juan Ignacio Molina, writing in 1782, said:
[The native Chileans] had ….in many parts of the country, aqueducts for watering their fields, which were constructed with great skill. Among these, the canal which, for the space of many miles, borders the rough skirts of the mountains in the vicinity of the Capital, and waters the land to the northward of the city, is particularly remarkable for its extent and solidity.[2]
Planting began in September or October and after two to four irrigations, harvest proceeded as needed from the arrival of the first green corn in December though April or May.  Further south, where there is adequate summer rain but a shorter growing season, maize was planted in October and was harvested in January and February, before frosts began in April.[3]  Molina, the Jesuit quoted above, provides the best early discussion of Mapuche maize:
The Chileans call [maize] hua and believe that they have had it since before their arrival in the country. Their primitive cultivation has produced many varieties, among which they especially distinguish:  cujumpe-hua or black maize, quely-hua, or red maize; pijima, or variegated maize; callquintu or black and white maize; gylil or flour maize; and mallehua or little white maize. All these varieties have great success in Chile, commonly producing three or four large, perfectly filled ears.
The Chileans use a great deal of this maize, making various foods among which they are especially fond of one which they call Huminta . These are made with fresh tender maize kernels, ground between two smooth stones, as cacao is prepared by chocolate makers. The resulting milky paste, seasoned with lard, salt or sugar, according to individual taste, is divided into small pieces each of which is wrapped in two of the tender shucks of the maize ear, and tied into a small packet, are cooked in boiling water.  With this same dough they make crust for pies and various kinds of cookies.
When the maize is ripe, they prepare it for winter in two ways:  they give it a light cooking then calling it chuchoca or cunarquen, or they leave it uncooked.  With the first, after crushing it, they make soups and with the other a type of very tasty beer [chicha].  They also make it into flour, but before milling it they toast it in a sand bath.  For this they use another species or variety of maize, called curahua, “rock maize,” whose grains are smaller. Upon cracking in the sand bath the flour doubles in volume, yielding a whiter and more digestible flour.  This flour dissolved in cool or hot water with and sugar or honey, becomes the ulpo, and chedcan that rural Araucanians [Mapuche] drink regularly, in place of coffee.[4]
This last variety of corn, curahua or cuaragua, an ancient popcorn variety originating in Peru, continues to be cultivated in Chile, or did as of 1961 when David Timothy and his colleagues collected the samples to the right.[5] 

The preparation methods Molina discussed also continue to be popular.  Humitas are in great demand throughout the summer [see “Humitas, Chilean Tamales”], and the same dough is used for today’s pastel de choclo, corn pie. The corn used for humitas, called choclo humero,  is very large, with 20 or more rows of kernels and, according to “Races of  Maize in Chile” is probably descended from a cross between native maize and dent corn introduced from the United States in the 19th century.[6]

Of course green corn was not used solely for humitas. In Life and Customs of the Araucarias in the Second Half of the  XIX Century, Mapuche chief Pascual Coña, explains:
Some ears of green corn are harvested for eating.  They are prepared in a great variety of ways.  Sometimes they remove the husks from the ear—the ear separated from the plant they call the choclo. They put them on the fire to roast and when cooked on one side they turn them.  Completely roasted they are eaten and called roasted choclo. Other times they bury the ear, covered with its husks, in the ashes.  When it is well cooked they take them out, remove the husk and eat them.  These are called buried chocols. They also boil the husked ears in a pot and eat them as-is; these are called boiled choclos. Finally they boil them in the husks and dry them afterwards. In this state they are called chuchoca. Dry they are shelled and ground on the stone.  The ground dough, called locro, is added to various stewed dishes.[7]


As Coña explains, Chuchoca is corn meal or flour ground from green corn, at or just beyond the milk stage, which has been boiled (or baked in an earth oven) and dried.   This allows cornmeal to be made from green corn, important in areas such as south central Chile with short growing seasons where the corn may not mature before first frost.[8] 

Chuchoca continues to be popular in Chilean cuisine, and is widely available. It is used as a thickener in pork and poultry cazuela, and in dishes such as potatoes and squash with cuchoca, below.

And, although not a part of traditional Chilean cuisine, chuchoca can be used in place of cornmeal or polenta.  I use it in multigrain breads, and American southern-style cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet. My Chilean family likes it, although they find it a bit strange.  In the spirit of intercultural interchange, here is the recipe, in Spanish and English:

Pan de chuchoca

2 tasas chuchoca
1 cucharadita bicarbonato de soda
1 cucharadita sal
2 huevos
1 envase yogurt natural (170 gm)
230 cc leche
1-2 cucharadas mantiquilla o grasa de tocino

Calentar el horno a 210°C/425° F. Echar la mantequilla o grasa en una fuente de horno de 1 lt para calentar. Mezclar los ingredientes secos en un bowl y echar los ingredientes líquidos.  Mezclar bien y colocar en la fuente caliente.  Hornear unos 20 minutes hasta que el pan este firme.  Servir con mantiquilla y miel. 

Chuchoca Bread

2 cups chuchoca
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon SALT
2 eggs
1 container plain yogurt (170 gm/6 oz.)
1 cup milk
1-2 T butter or bacon fat

Heat oven to 210°C/425° F.  Put butter or fat in 1 qt. oven proof Pyrex dish or cast iron skillet and place in oven to heat.  Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl and add liquid ingredients. Mix well and pour into hot dish or skillet. Bake about 20 minutes or until the bread is firm. Serve with butter and honey.


 Chuchoca bread

Sweet Corn [9]

Sweet corn, choclo Americano, is also popular in Chile.  In my Chilean family corn on the cob is eaten with butter as a first course.  Off the cob it is usually eaten cold as a salad. 

 A typical Chilean ensalada surtida, mixed salad.


 One of the classic first courses in Chilean cuisine is a tomato stuffed with a corn salad.

[1] Vivar, Jeronimo de.  1558. Crónica y relación copiosa y verdadera de los reinos de Chile. Santiago:  Fondo histórico y bibliografico. On line at
[2]J. Ignatius (Juan Ignatio) Molina.  1808. (Original 1782)  The Geographical, Natural and Civil History of Chili. Vol. II  Milddetown, ConnecticutI. Riley. Translated by an American Gentleman (R. Alsop). p. 14.  On line at
[3]Timothy, David H., Bertulfo Pena V. & Ricardo Ramirez E. 1961 Races of  Maize in Chile. Publication 847. National Academy of Sciences National
Research Council,  Washington, D. C. on line at
[4] Molina, Juan Ignacio.  1987. Ensayo sobre la historia natural de Chile: Bolonia 1810. Primera traducción del original italiano, prólogo y notas del Prof. Dr. Rodolfo Jaramillo.  Santiago :  Eds. Maule. On line at
[5] Timothy, op. cit. photo, p. 52
[6] Ibid.
[7] Wilhelm de Moesbach, P. Ernesto. 1930 Vida y costumbres de los indígenas araucanos de las segunda mitad del siglo XIX.  Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes P. 144.  My translation of the Spanish translation from Mapudungun.  On line at
[8] A similar process is followed in New Mexico, where growing season can also be short, for the preparation of chicos although chicos are not ground into meal burt are cooked whole, usually with beans.  See. Chicos Slow Food USA, on line at

[9] “Sweet corn” refers to the typical US garden and supermarket corn, usually eaten “on the cob.” It is different from other maize varieties in having a much higher sugar content.  Traditional maize varieties, used for corn meal and animal feeds, are called “field corn” in the US

1 comment:

  1. Thanks! Here's your recipe, in Spanish, proofread.

    2 tazas de chuchoca
    1 cucharadita de bicarbonato de soda
    1 cucharadita de sal
    2 huevos
    1 yogurt natural (170 g)
    230 cc de leche
    1-2 cucharadas mantequilla o grasa de tocino

    Calentar el horno a 210°C/425° F. Poner a calentar la mantequilla o grasa en una sartén de horno de 1 lt. Mezclar los ingredientes secos en un bowl y echar los ingredientes líquidos. Mezclar bien y colocar en la sartén. Hornear unos 20 minutes hasta que el pan este firme. Servir con mantequilla y miel.


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