Have you ever ordered something that you thought you knew what it was, but it turns out you didn’t? Over the weekend I found myself sitting at a cafe in Brooklyn, having ordered the hominy pork hash. I’m not even sure what I thought hominy was, but it wasn't the gigantic, off-white, corn kernel-looking things that were mixed in with my roasted pork, potatoes, and pickled jalapeños. So, what is hominy? Hominy is corn. Considering that corn, and everything you can make with it, is one of my favorite things on the planet, I really enjoy hominy. But I was still unsure of what it actually was other than a corn-looking, potato-tasting ingredient in my greasy brunch hash.

If you want to get technical, hominy is maize—given its Mexican heritage. Maize (or maíz) belonged to the indigenous Central and South Americans before the Native Americans supposedly taught the settlers how to plant it. Hominy and hominy recipes, like maize, are common in many traditional Mexican dishes. Some sources date the production of hominy back to Central America circa 1500 BC. The difference between maize and hominy is that hominy has to be processed a special way to be called hominy and to get that puffed-meaty texture that’s similar to a bean, yet tougher. Hominy has to be nixtamalized. 

Nixtamalization is not some scary genetic modification or corn-torturing process. It’s a common culinary practice that involves soaking the dried maize kernels in an alkali solution of calcium hydroxide made from slaked lime, lye, or woodash. Nixtamalization loosens the kernels’ hulls, makes them soft like a bean, and doubles their size—hence the term “giant corn.” You’ll typically find hominy in cans and thrown into stews (like posole), but it can also be found dried. Dry hominy can be rehydrated and cooked like beans, but it is commonly ground and made into grits, masa, or atole—a rich, creamy Mexican beverage mixed with milk, water, and sometimes chocolate.

If you’re unfamiliar, masa is what makes corn tortillas, tamales, and pupusas. Don’t mistake it for just plain old cornmeal. Because of the nixtamalization process, you can make a dough from just masa and water. Try doing that with cornmeal, and it won’t work. The other cool thing about masa, or really about hominy in general, is that by nixtamalizing the corn, the nutrient niacin can be absorbed into the body through the digestive tract. So basically, hominy is gigantic corn kernels that are delicious, more nutritious, and even keep better. Just when you thought corn couldn’t get any better.