One of the reasons I knew that I would be all right after being diagnosed as celiac, was that I spend much of my childhood abroad and could think of a million dishes without gluten off the top of my head. Dishes, I knew how to prepare. Being half-Bolivian, I’ve eaten quinoa all of my life. Back then, quinoa was only available in Andean nations, so whenever we visited, my mom would take some back to whereever we were living i her suitcase and we would use it sparingly as a special treat in our vegetable soups during winter.
Today, we no longer worry about where to find quinoa (and amaranth and all the other power grains), as it has become available in practically every supermarket in all of Europe and the United States. I’s now a staple in my kitchen, too, replacing rice. This trend may have worked to my advantage, but it’s cause quite the inconvenience for the people who depend on quinoa as a staple in their daily diet. They now have to pay multiple times than what they used to for this grain rich in protein and iron. It makes me weary of introducing my favourite quinoa dishes on this blog.
My favourite Bolivian delicacy, however, is humintas. They are probably my favourite dish ever. Because it is both sweet and salty it makes both a great breakfast treat or an afternoon snack, going well with a strong cup of black tea.What is white corn you ask? It’s corn and it’s white and its kernels are probably five times the size of the yellow corn, which we consume in all other parts of the world (and which was originally grown to feed animals before it became popular food among humans from what I understand). The flavour of white corn is much lighter, a bit watery and less “yellow”/”eggy”, starchier. For me it tastes like the air on Altiplano and near Titicaca Lake. I have now idea how to describe it any other way, you’ll just have to try yourself.
As a child, when visiting Bolivia, whenever they were available, I would eat humintas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It often had me (and my brother) suffering from diarrhea from overeating humintas without allowing our stomachs to get used to this new food. My brother had such a terrible episode one time when he was very little. It was so bad, that to this day the mention of the word “huminta” makes him queasy. The word huminta is quechua (I don’t know what it means, sorry) and I like to think this dish has been traditionally consumed in the Andes for centuries. As in even when America was not yet considered the new world. Humintas (also referred to as Humita in other parts of South America) is basically a mass of ground white corn with a cheesy center, wrapped in fresh corn leaves, similar to tamales (which are wrapped in banana leaves and have a meaty center). The huminta mass is prepared differently depending on who you ask, but milk, butter, salt, sugar and anise (the latter only in Bolivia) are essential. You can also add ajo amarillo (yellow pepper) for a version with a kick and – if you in comparison to me like them – raisins.
I remember the last huminta I had when I visited Bolivia back in the day and since then often wishes I had easy access to the ingredients – well, white corn. My mom and I spent many afternoons trying to re-create humintas both steamed in their leaves or in the form of cake with yellow corn, both canned and fresh. While we were succesful in this endeavour, it was just not the same. You cannot imagine my happiness when I discovered a store specializing in Latin American products here in Cologne by coincidence.
Two and a half years ago, I was visiting my in-laws for Christmas. I forgot my contact lens case and stored my hard contact lenses in shot glasses. The contacts turned around, sucked themselves firmly onto the bottom of the shot glasses and I broke them in half trying to remove them. Well, I broke one, my husband broke the second in trying to help me. I found an optician on Luxemburger Strasse, who made me a good offer on the phone, and after he had measured everything he needed to know, I exited his store and found myself facing Hola Mundo across the street. I crossed the street very excitedly and almost went wild inside. I bought many things, including Pacenha, a popular beer in La Paz and aji amarilla (which I have used to recreate the Ajiaco de Choclo dish I ate our local Peruvian restaurant, La Pachamama). Replacing my contact lenses was expensive, but discovering Hola Mundo totally made up for it.
Run by a Peruvian, Hola Mundo sells both dry and canned goods (which can also be ordered on the internet). If you are lucky enough to live in Cologne, like me, then you can also purchase a variety of frozen goods, among them white corn (on the cob and loose), arepas, empanadas and chiles. I once also bought queso fresco, but I think the demand was too low, and I’ve not been able to find it any more. Since my first visit, I have become a frequent customer at Hola Mundo, buying all sorts of Latin American products I thought I would only see again upon my visiting Bolivia.
Another gluten-free food, that I learnt to love while living abroad, is masa harina, bleached flour made ouf of white corn and staple in Mexico and Central America, for they use it to make tortillas. During my three years of living in Managua, Nicaragua, I became obsessed with white corn tortillas and I learnt how to make them using a tortilla press. Again, when I returned to Germany, I tried replacing masa harina with all kinds of corn flour, none of them apt to making tortillas in the tortilla press my mom bought back for me before we moved. I found some stores on the internet, which said they sold masa harina, but having failed in trying to find proper bleached white corn flour so many times, I never dared placing a trial order.
Someone, on one of the expat forums in Cologne, claimed they regularly buy frozen white corn tortillas at the Asian supermarket on Mauritiussteinweg, called Seng Heng. Soon after, I confirmed his statement and was even happier when discovering the store also sold masa harina, distributed by Mex-Al, a business in Aachen that sells Mexican products on the internet. I go to Seng Heng now all the time to buy rice paper, vermicelli and gluten-free soy sauce. They also sell dried white corn leaves, which I used to make humintas with. The results were okay-ish, but not near the real thing.
You can imagine my happiness when last Friday I discovered that Hola Mundo sells frozen leaves, yes? As I took my purchases out of the freezer, the family next to me nodded and exclaimed in Spanish “So you are making humintas! Oh, so delicious!”. At the counter, while paying, I had the same conversation with the store owner. I love how food connects us, how we have an understanding of one another by merely taking a peek at each other’s grocery baskets.
Ingredients for about eight humintas:
500g defrosted white corn kernels
1,5 cups milk
3/4 cup masa harina
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp mixture of guar gum, arrowroot power, carob flour and xanthan gum
1 tsp salt
50g sugar (you can also use brown sugar or one part brown and one part white sugar if you like)
75g butter, melted
3/4 tbsp aji amarillo paste (optional)
1 tsp anise
(a handful or two off raisins, if you’re into them)
1 mozzarella ball (about 125g), drained and cut into slices – you can also use other types of salty, firm cheeses, such as gouda
2 slices of cheddar cheese
corn leaves from two cobs
Put the white corn kernels into your food processor together with the milk. Puree until you obtain an evenly ground mass. Add the eggs one by one, the masa harina, the salt and the sugar and continue mixing well (you may have to use a spoon at this point, don’t be afraid to add more milk if you think the mass is too dry). In a pot, melt the butter, add the aji amarillo and heat while stirring for about two to three minutes. This will take some of the bite out of the aji, making it smoother. Add to the white corn mix. Add the anise (and if you are using them, the raisins). Stir well.
On a clean kitchen counter, prepare to assemble the humintas, by putting the white corn mass and a bowl with the slices of cheese somewhere near and easily available. Out of one corn leaf tear off “strings” off starting from the wide end. Tie two (or three) of these strings together, preferably using the skinny end of the string.Place two corn leaves (the wide end facing each other) onto each other, and add two tablespoons of corn mass. Place a slice of each cheese on top of each other and cover with another tablespoon or two of corn mass.
Repeat process until all white corn mass has been used up. Place oven dish into oven, heated at 250 °C, for about half an hour to fourty minutes. I placed a second, smaller oven dish, filled with water, on the bottom of the oven, to create a bit of a more humid atmosphere. I hear if the leaves dry up too much, they can catch fire in your oven (particularly if it is gas), so be careful to keep a watchful eye on them.
After half an hour, test if humintas are done, by carefully opening one and taking a bit of the mass out. It should look as firm as pudding. Serve hot, allowing the person eating to unwarp their own huminta. Some like their humintas topped with a bit of additional sugar.
Can be kept in the fridge in a closed container for up to a week.
Edit: You can also make the steamed version of these in a pot, the degrained corn cobs functioning as a buffer between the water and the humintas. This takes a good while longer and I’ve not had such great results as with the ones I have made in the oven. I have written my recipe for the oven-made humintas without wrappers, but in a casserole dish here.
If you can find the white corn, but not the leaves, make the mass as explained, then pour into generously greased oven dish (grating the cheese and adding it into the mass) and place into oven until done. This may also take a bit longer, so ensure not to exceed five centimetres height.