Ryan Tatsumoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

Many years ago, while my dad was a letter carrier in Waimänalo, he often brought home corn given to him by employees at the Waimänalo Research Station, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources of the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Back then the researchers were working on perfecting a super sweet corn variety of which none of the products were available for sale. Instead, the harvested crops were taken home by employees or given to community members. Honestly, I didn’t really care for the super sweet variety of corn and though it was very sweet, it didn’t have much of a corn flavor. It’s like commercially available cherries, while they’re very sweet, I don’t think they have a pronounced cherry flavor.

Zea Mays (aka Maize)

People have been cultivating corn for the past 10,000 years starting in Mexico then spreading throughout Mesoamerica. Worldwide, corn production surpasses both wheat and rice production with the U.S. and China growing more than half of the world’s supply of corn. Aside from fresh ears of corn, it’s also ground to produce cornmeal, pressed for corn oil and fermented to produce bourbon and ethanol for biofuel.

A cross section illustration of the composition of a corn kernel. (Image from georgiacorngrowers.org)

As a food source, it provides carbohydrates and a fair amount of thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid and folic acid (All are B vitamins) as well as magnesium and phosphorus. Corn also contains a little protein but contains very little tryptophan, lysine and methionine, which means corn needs to be consumed with other plant proteins like wheat and beans to provide a complete protein. The niacin found in corn also needs additional processing to make it absorbable. The Mesoamericans nixtamalized corn by soaking it in a limewater solution or alkaline medium to remove the outer pericarp (see illustration) before grinding corn into cornmeal. However, this nixtamalization also released niacin bound to the starch and also reduced aflatoxins (toxins produced by molds) so that the Mesoamericans didn’t suffer from pellagra caused by a niacin deficiency. 

When the Spaniards conquered and plundered Mexico, they also took back maize which became a widely consumed staple food. However, they didn’t take back the nixtamalization process with them so many Europeans were afflicted with pellagra causing skin inflammation, diarrhea, dementia and eventually death. This was probably Montezuma’s true revenge.

The Fresh Variety

Fresh cobs are usually boiled, steamed, fried or grilled. My dad advised us to boil a freshly shucked cob while it was still attached to the stalk so that it maintained its natural sweetness as sugars started converting into starch as soon as it was picked. I remember ears of corn being grilled with butter and shoyu at those annual obon dances in Wailuku. I also sampled a fair share of elote or the Mexican preparation where grilled or fried ears were slathered in mayonnaise then topped with chili powder and cotija cheese. However, my favorite preparation of fresh corn doesn’t require any heat at all. To remove the kernels from the cob, I use a technique that Napa celebrity chef Michael Chiarello employs. He places the end of the cob in the hole of the center of an upright Bundt pan then slices off the kernels, which mostly fall right into the pan. The hole in the Bundt pan also gives you a little more stability than simply using a cutting board.

Grilled corn salad. (Photos by Ryan Tatsumoto)

Fresh Corn Salad

3 cups of fresh corn kernels (about 8 to 10 ears)

¾ cup fat free sour cream

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

¾ teaspoon smoked salt

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

1 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

1 cup finely chopped green onions

Combine the sour cream and the green onions in a large bowl and mix. Add corn and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours before serving.

The Dried Variety

During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when pantry items sold out as quickly as they were stocked, we chose dried items not purchased by the average shopper including a five-pound bag of cornmeal. Growing up with the “waste not, want not” mantra, I’ve made several batches of cornbread as well as this casserole that primarily uses canned goods including chicken. I know that you’re visualizing that large can that no one seems to purchase that contains a whole chicken. No, not that canned chicken but the Kirkland canned chicken breasts. I mean if you can eat canned tuna, canned chicken is no different and has a lot longer shelf life than fresh or the pre-cooked variety. Even our milk is the pantry variety as we primarily use powdered skimmed milk so the eggs and cheeses are the only perishables in this dish as you can also use dried, chopped onion in this recipe.

Chicken tamale casserole.

Chicken Tamale Casserole

2 14.5-ounce cans of fire roasted diced tomatoes

1 16-ounce can cream of corn

1 medium onion, diced

1 ½ tablespoons chili powder

½ cup bottled mole sauce

2 tablespoons dried cilantro

1 cup skim milk

½ cup cornmeal

2 whole eggs

2 egg whites

1 4.5-ounce can chopped olives

2 cans coarsely chopped chicken breast

½ cup reduced fat Monterey Jack cheese

½ cup reduced fat sharp cheddar cheese

1 4-ounce can chopped green chili

Any hot sauce or cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine tomatoes, corn, onion, chili powder, mole sauce, dried cilantro, salt and pepper in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together milk, cornmeal and eggs. Add cornmeal mixture to tomato mixture and cook over medium low heat while stirring constantly for 10 to 15 minutes until mixture is thickened. Remove from heat and stir in olives, green chili and chicken. Pour mixture into a 3-quart baking dish sprayed with non-stick spray. Top with cheeses and bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Serve hot. 

Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet” (nichibei.org/columns/gochiso-gourmet/).


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