Among the indigenous foods that have enriched the cuisine of the Spanish creoles, none exceed the umitas, neither for their exquisite taste, nor for the antiquity of their origin. Zorobabel Rodriguez (Dicionary de Chilinesmos, Santiago, 1875; all translations mine.)This time of year, mid February, my wife wants humitas, Chilean tamales seasoned with sweet basil. We usually buy ours at the local plaza, where beginning in late January when the corn reaches the milk stage, a vendor shows up around 12:30 with a cooler full of hot humitas and remains until he sells out.
The name humita, comes from hummita or jumint'a in Quechua, the language of the Inca (and millions of 21st century Peruvians). Throughout the Andes, from Ecuador to Chile, humitas of various types are made, usually with fresh, rather than dried, corn. Fresh maize, cut from the cob and ground, is also the basis of the Mexican tamal de elote, but the use of sweet basil as a seasoning seems particularly Chilean. Although basil is an old world herb of Iranian or Indian origin, it is widely used in Chilean cooking with Mapuche origins. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of central Chile, were (and many are) agriculturalists, planting the Andean trilogy of corn, beans and potatoes, plus dozens of other native crops, and whatever old world domesticates they liked and that grew well in Chile’s climates. But I haven’t learned how or when basil became popular among the Mapuche.
The corn or choclo (from the Quechua chujllu) for humitas is very large, and is a starchy rather than a sweet corn, like the “field corn” used for animal feeds and corn meal. When cooked the starch thickens, producing the familiar tamale texture. Sweet corn prepared in the same fashion remains runny unless corn meal is added for thickening.
The modern Chilean recipe for Humitas, from the classic chilean cookbok, La Gran Cocina Chilena (8th Edition, 2000) is as follows:
8 ears of corn (choclos humeros)
1 sprig of sweet basil
1 teaspoon of paprika (ají de color)
1/8 kg (1/2 cup) lard
1 cube of chicken bullion
Salt and pepper
Mince the onion and sauté in the lard with the paprika. Add the bullion cube dissolved in two teaspoons of water. Cut the corn from the cob and grind or process in food processor with the basil. In a large bowl mix the ground corn and sautéed onion, and season with salt, pepper, sugar and paprika. If you want the humitas to be light colored, add milk. Overlap two corn shucks and place some of the mixture in the center. Fold the shucks over to form a package and tie with string or with thin strips of corn shuck. Boil in abundant salted water for approximately 30 minutes. Serve with ensalad chilena.