Maize (Zea mays L. ssp. mays, pronounced /ˈmeɪz/), known in many English-speaking countries as corn, is a grass domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The Aztecs and Mayans cultivated it in numerous varieties throughout central and southern Mexico, to cook or grind in a process called nixtamalization. Later the crop spread through much of the Americas. Between 1250 and 1700, nearly the whole continent had gained access to the crop. Any significant or dense populations in the region developed a great trade network based on surplus and varieties of maize crops. After European contact with the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, explorers and traders carried maize back to Europe and introduced it to other countries through trade. Maize spread to the rest of the world due to its popularity and ability to grow in diverse climates.
Maize is the most widely grown crop in the Americas with 332 million metric tons grown annually in the United States alone. Transgenic maize comprised 85% of the maize planted in the United States in 2009. While some maize varieties grow up to 7 metres (23 ft) tall, most commercially grown maize has been bred for a standardized height of 2.5 metres (8.2 ft). Sweet corn is usually shorter than field-corn varieties.
Maize and cornmeal (ground dried maize) constitutes a staple food in many regions of the world. Maize meal is made into a thick porridge in many cultures: from the polenta of Italy, the angu of Brazil, the mămăligă of Romania, to mush in the U.S. or the food called sadza, nshima, ugali, and mealie pap in Africa. Maize meal is also used as a replacement for wheat flour, to make cornbread and other baked products. Masa (cornmeal treated with lime water) is the main ingredient for tortillas, atole and many other dishes of Mexican food.
Popcorn is kernels of certain varieties that explode when heated, forming fluffy pieces that are eaten as a snack. Roasted dried maize cobs with semi-hardened kernels, coated with a seasoning mixture of fried chopped spring onions with salt added to the oil, is a popular snack food in Vietnam. Cancha, which are roasted maize chulpe kernels, are a very popular snack food in Peru, and also appears in traditional Peruvian ceviche. A unleavened bread called Makki di roti is a popular bread eaten in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.
Chicha and “chicha morada” (purple chicha) are drinks made usually from particular types of maize. The first one is fermented and alcoholic, the second is a soft drink commonly drunk in Peru.
Corn flakes are a common breakfast cereal in North America and the United Kingdom, and found in many other countries all over the world.
Maize can also be prepared as hominy, in which the kernels are soaked with lye in a process called nixtamalization; or grits, which are coarsely ground hominy. These are commonly eaten in the Southeastern United States, foods handed down from Native Americans, who called the dish sagamite.
The Brazilian dessert canjica is made by boiling maize kernels in sweetened milk. Corn can also be used to make pamonhas, another Brazilian Dish.
Maize can also be harvested and consumed in the unripe state, when the kernels are fully grown but still soft. Unripe maize must usually be cooked to become palatable; this may be done by simply boiling or roasting the whole ears and eating the kernels right off the cob. Such corn on the cob is a common dish in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, some parts of South America, and the Balkans, but virtually unheard of in some European countries. The cooked unripe kernels may also be shaved off the cob and served as a vegetable in side dishes, salads, garnishes, etc. Alternatively, the raw unripe kernels may also be grated off the cobs and processed into a variety of cooked dishes, such as maize purée, tamales, pamonhas, curau, cakes, ice creams, etc. Sweetcorn, a genetic variety that is high in sugars and low in starch, is usually consumed in the unripe state.
Corn on the cob, as it is usually called in the United States, was hawked on the streets of early 19th-century New York City by poor, barefoot “Hot Corn Girls”, who were thus the precursors of hot-dog carts, churro wagons, and fruit stands seen on the streets of big cities today.
Maize is a major source of starch. Cornstarch (maize flour) is a major ingredient in home cooking and in many industrialized food products. Maize is also a major source of cooking oil (corn oil) and of maize gluten. Maize starch can be hydrolyzed and enzymatically treated to produce syrups, particularly high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener; and also fermented and distilled to produce grain alcohol. Grain alcohol from maize is traditionally the source of bourbon whiskey. Maize is sometimes used as the starch source for beer.
Within the United States, the usage of maize for human consumption constitutes about 1/40th of the amount of grown in the country. In the United States and Canada maize is mostly grown to feed for livestock, as forage, silage (made by fermentation of chopped green cornstalks), or grain. Maize meal is also a significant ingredient of some commercial animal food products, such as dog food
Maize is also used as a fish bait, called “dough balls”. It is particularly popular in Europe for coarse fishing.