about me
Golden grains and golden tassels - Maize

As a child every season had its distinctive scent, taste and sound. On dark winter nights, pressing my nose to glass tasting of snow, I remember watching the boza seller trudging along the street. The shadowy figure with his high-pitched cry of 'Bozaaa!' fascinated but also slightly scared me. New street cries announced the coming of summer, this time with tomatoes, aubergines and peppers. But I would ignore these, eagerly waiting for the ice cream seller to come by. And even he could not beat the excitement created by the maize seller, pushing his cart with its great cauldrons of boiling water along the street. My mother would come down to the street with me, and I would be handed a scalding hot corn on the cob, generously salted and wrapped in green maize leaves. Then of course there was also grilled corn and popcorn. Popcorn was sold outside cinemas and I always pestered for some as we entered.

I still know that summer has really arrived when the maize sellers appear in the streets. As I devour those delicious juicy golden grains, I give thanks to Christopher Columbus for bringing maize back from the New World.

Maize is a cereal of American origin with a solid stem and large seeds tightly packed on a solid core. For a long time the wild plant from which cultivated corn was originally developed was believed to have become extinct, but in the 1970s researchers discovered a species of perennial wild corn in Mexico. Maize has been cultivated in Central and South America for thousands of years, beginning as the principal article of diet of the Aztecs and Toltecs. Later on its cultivation spread to the native peoples of North America, the Mayas of Guatemala, the Chibchas of Colombia and the Incas and Quechuas of Peru, where most of the pre-Colombian tombs excavated by archaeologists have been found to contain maize.

The 'maize culture' which goes back to at least 4000 BC in America only arrived in the Old World in the late 15th century. After the first maize seeds were brought to Spain by Columbus, this new cereal spread to the northern Mediterranean and parts of Asia in the 15th century, and was introduced to West Africa, India and China in the 16th century. It is thought that maize must have arrived in Turkey from North Africa, because the Turkish name for maize is misir, meaning Egypt. Curiously it was from Turkey that the cultivation of maize spread westwards into central Europe, a phenomenon reflected in one of the French names for maize, Turkish wheat (blé de Turquie), others being Spanish corn and Indian corn.

The cultivation of maize in Turkey is concentrated in the Black Sea region, where its consumption is also highest. Maize has become an important part of life here. Check the absolute location of Turkey and more on this page.

No home is without its maize patch in the garden, and maize is a staple of the regional diet, used to make bread and added to numerous dishes. It is fed to livestock. For this reason, the people here take almost as much care of their maize as they do their children! The soil is well tilled and weeded to give higher yields, and next to every house is a special barn for storing maize and a mill for grinding maize meal.

After being harvested the heads of maize are dried, and then the grains separated from the cobs and ground into flour. Maize flour makes healthy and nourishing bread, and is an ingredient of a wide range of local vegetable, fish and pastry dishes, including the famous kuymak made with roasted maize flour, butter and cheese.

When the harvest is over fires are lit and cauldrons full of freshly picked maize are set to boil. People dance and chat around the fires, their smiling faces glowing in the light of the flames. The crop for which they worked so hard has been gathered in, and they are now sharing the fruit of their labors with friends and neighbors. With the maize crop safely in the barns everyone can relax.

America remains the heart of maize culture, however, and still accounts for half of total world production. The continent is the original home of popcorn and the more recent invention, corn chips, which have both spread to the rest of the world. It is hard to imagine any cinema without popcorn, which somehow adds to the pleasure of watching films in much the same way our grandmothers used to serve up their fairy tales with popcorn made over a blazing stove on winter evenings.

Today popcorn machines have taken the place of stoves and televisions the place of fairy tales, but although the new style popcorn cannot really compare to the old, the taste and aroma of golden grained maize sold in the streets is just as tempting as ever.