My favorite comfort foods are carbs — the kind that are warm, doughy, salty, subtle and singular in flavor and, frankly, bland in color.
Humitas satisfy all of these requirements in the best way. They are the cousin to the tamale, my favorite Mexican food that I wrote about in my last entry. But, I admit, l love humitas more.
Unlike tamales in Mexico, with the small exception of the tamal de elote, humitas are mellow. They have no strong or competing flavors or textures, just the simple consistency of fresh maize, or ‘choclo’ as it’s called in Ecuador, along with a few other ingredients that bring out the flavor of this star ingredient. This hefty snack is found throughout the Americas. In Brazil it’s called a ‘pamoña’ and throughout Central America it’s generally referred to as a ‘yotamal’.
Reliable sources told me the best place to get humitas in Quito was at La Casa de la Humita y el Tamal Lojano (The House of Humitas and Tamales Lojanos).
This place isn’t just getting by on its name. Spoiler — humitas at La Casa are incredible and it’s because this restaurant celebrates the choclo.
Alexis Chavez, director of personnel at La Casa de la Humita walks me through the humita-making process that begins…in the restaurant’s basement.
Actually, it’s an underground garage, pero no importa.
The space is perfect to shuck tons of maize if humita-making is your priority. Alexis introduces me to six guys sitting on wooden stools doing so by the sack.
“We use a mix of Highland and Coastal choclo varieties,” Alexis says.
This is the first time I’ve heard of any restaurant or home cook mixing regional varieties of choclo to make humitas. Humitas are a Highland dish said to originate from the Loja area where La Casa de la Humita owners, Sara Garcia and Oscar Leiva, are from and this hearty snack is generally only prepared with Highland choclo.
In Quito, humitas are found mainly in small, mom and pop shops that cater to locals. Over the past few years, however, fancy restaurants and hotels are serving them to the tourist crowd.
Using just the Highland variety, says Alexis, produces humitas that are too bland and watery.
“If you puncture the Highland choclo,” which Alexis does by pressing his thumbnail into the white grain, “it’s waterier. It has a more tame, bland flavor compared to the Coastal varieties.” If you pinch the Coastal choclo as Alexis demonstrates — no water.
“Coastal choclo is yellow in color, dense and has a floury, drier consistency compared to the Highland varieties,” explains Manuel Chacinga, director of choclo supplies who has been working at La Casa for 16 years.
Mixing the varieties from the warm and cold regions “gives the humitas the best flavor and consistency,” says the director of personnel.
Between April and June, the restaurant uses a three-grain mix — one from Bolivar Province, another from the warm, Coastal Guayas Province, and another from the restaurant’s own farm in the warmer valley southeast of Quito.
I’m surprised and impressed the restaurant grows some of the maize it uses in its products because to cosechar maize is a difficult, long process and not a common practice among restaurants.
Once the Bolivar choclo is no longer in season, starting in July until September La Casa will depend on northern Highland farmers for the white grain. I imagine the switch subtly changes the flavor of the restaurant’s signature envuelto throughout the year.
Now’s a good time to geek out on choclo info.
“In Ecuador, choclo refers to fresh maize,” says Javier Carrera, founder of The Seed Guardian Network that works to keep native seeds in production in Ecuador and Colombia. Fresh maize is used to make humitas, in contrast to the nixtamalizado maize employed to make tamales in Mexico. There, fresh maize is referred to as ‘elote’.
The first signs of maize, or Zea mays, have been found in what’s now the border between Puebla and Oaxaca states in Mexico. The Proto Nal Tel Chapalote grain found at this site dates back about 10,000 years, writes Ana Bravo, Ecuadorian seed scientist and food sovereignty activist. Some 5,000 years later, mutations of this proto-type was being cultivated along Ecuador’s southern coast, she adds.
However, in Ecuador, and in much of Meso and South America, Zea mays hasn’t been industrialized. Varieties are still mainly heirloom, grown by small-scale farmers who select the best seeds for next year’s planting.
The most widely-grown maize variety in Ecuador has a stubby, chubby cob with large, white grains. Red and blue kinds, like the racimo de uva, are also cultivated, but to a lesser degree.
Each variety has its best use, say scientists and home cooks. Chillos maize is native to the warmer valleys around Quito and are ideal for humitas. Chulpi is grown in the higher elevations along the Andes and is optimal to be dried, fried and eaten as ‘tostado’.
A 1963 publication ‘Races of Maize in Ecuador’, written by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences also identifies nearly 29 distinct varieties of maize in Ecuador — all native.
The publication’s authors outline in detail the physical characteristics, location and altitude of the autochthonous maizes they encountered in cultivation. They note how each kind of maize in Ecuador may be genetically related to maizes found in Colombia and Bolivia.
Alexis says he can call a reliable farmer one day and “the choclo is harvested and brought to us by the next morning and served up that night in humitas and tamales lojanos (below).
What La Casa de la Humita can’t use goes to the pigs and plants. “Nothing is wasted. The parts of the maize we don’t use are fed to the pigs or used as fertilizers.”
Upstairs the choclo is cut from the cob, steamed, ground and mixed…with secret ingredients.
Alexis won’t tell me the La Casa’s humita recipe but says, “in general, it has ground choclo, egg, salt, chives, and everything is natural. There are no preservatives.”
The masa is then wrapped and steamed in corn husks, and this restaurant can turn out up to 5,000 humitas per day to meet the demands of the restaurant’s “faithful clients” and the several (also secret) hotels and restaurants around Quito that La Casa sells to.
At night, the restaurant’s two stories are packed. During a Monday morning visit La Casa de la Humita was equally busy. That day, I talked to two faithful customers: Maria Ortiz and Diego Granja. Maria says she comes to the restaurant sometimes three times a week, specifically for the humita. “They are better than anywhere else,” she assures me.
I’m with Maria. The humitas here are like none other I’ve had in Ecuador. They are, at once, dense and flaky, moist and savory. There’s no sweetener or anis added that some humita recipes call for. Bits of individual choclo are still visible, showing just how fresh this masa is, compared to other cut-rate humitas made with added corn meal.
“We’ve been coming to La Casa de la Humita for years, since it was a hole-in-the-wall a few blocks away,” Diego says while Maria enjoys her humita.
The couple had just eaten a full almuerzo at La Casa and for desert — humitas. Granja says he dines there about twice a month. The two live 45 minutes north of the restaurant, but frequently travel past the La Casa and never miss a chance to eat there because of the “freshness and quality” of the food.
Quiteños often bring dozens of humitas from La Casa to family members they visit in the U.S. and Europe, says Diego.
I live far (in Quito terms) from La Casa de la Humita, but their humitas, tamales lojanos, morocho (I could go on) are well worth the trip.