Choclo: The Giant Corn of Peru

by Sean Kenniff
Antoinette Bruno, and graphics Created by OhSoBoho India
June 2014

Restaurant

 

Bigger is better is usually an American mindset. But when it comes to corn, it’s a Peruvian mantra. While we North Americans prefer the small kernel-ed yellow or white sweet corn of the vast central plains, in Peru they eat choclo—and they don’t even have to floss afterward.     

Choclo, also known as Peruvian or Cusco corn (named for the capital city of the Incas), is not a crop that thrives in the flatlands. It’s an Andean corn with extra large, bulbous kernels “almost five times bigger than North American corn, and has a creamy texture,” says giant among Peruvian chefs, Hector Solis of Fiesta. And from Fiesta to Virgilio Martínez’s Central and Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston, we ate choclo at the cream of the crop of Peruvian restaurants. Its chewy kernels, though large, make for a more elegant dining experience—they don’t get trapped between your teeth. They’re also not sweet, at all, and starchier than North American corn. The flavor is corn-y but nuttier. There’s a pride these chefs take in serving this most Peruvian of ingredients at their restaurants—and it catching on outside the traditional Peruvian kitchen.

Choclo

Choclo

Guinea Pig, Choclo, Goat Cheese Stuffed Rocoto Chile, and Muña Oil at Mayta

Guinea Pig, Choclo, Goat Cheese Stuffed Rocoto Chile, and Muña Oil at Mayta

Grilled Ceviche on Corn Leaves from Chef Hector Solis of Fiesta

Grilled Ceviche on Corn Leaves from Chef Hector Solis of Fiesta

“Giant corn is rapidly increasing its popularity in the North American market,” says Ricardo Romero, Director of the Trade Commission of Peru Los Angeles. “Its taste and uncommonly large size of its grains is gaining acceptance by the American consumer, who is becoming more receptive and willing to explore new products.”

In size and texture, choclo is somewhat similar to hominy, except it’s not treated with lye or dried, and it's naturally creamier when cooked. Peruvian-style ceviche—which Solis has brought to the attention of the world—is grilled, most often set above the flames on a protective bed of choclo leaves. The traditional sides are sweet potatoes and choclo. Sprinkled over the dish is corn nuts—choclo kernels that have been soaked for several days and then deep-fried until crisp—a common garnish and satisfying snack in most homes and restaurants. Many times it’s also added to white rice or the principal ingredient in “pastel de choclo,” corn pie.

Chef Jaime Pesaque of Mayta in Lima says Peruvians traditionally eat choclo simply boiled, sautéed, in corn pudding, or pachamanca-style, where meats and vegetables are combined for a one-pot dish that’s cooked using hot stones in an earthen oven known as a “huatia.” Solis also likes to use choclo to make crispy biscuits.

“I love choclo crispy,” says Pesaque. “You boil it and then you sauté the kernels with a little bit of butter, it’s just amazing! Choclo is part of our culture, our history. The Incas ate choclo. We have more than 100 varieties. It’s different from all other corn around the world.” 

In the United States, choclo is mainly found in Latin markets, usually frozen, on or off the cob. At Mayta, Pesaque serves sautéed choclo with sous vide “cuy” that he crisps-up in a frying pan. Cuy is another typical Peruvian product: guinea pig. And while guinea pig’s arrival on the American dinner table may be a long time coming, choclo is primed for initiation. After all, we are a corn-loving people as well, and for bigger-is-better choclo, no tooth picks required.