It’s corn fungus! Huitlacoche has been used for thousands of years as a delicacy in traditional Mexican cuisine. The Aztecs actually used it as an ingredient in many of their staple foods. This particular strain of fungus is called Ustilago maydis, and is native to the corn fields of Mexico.
It develops when a drop of water penetrates between the husks on an ear of corn. Once the water is trapped, the mold develops, causing the healthy corn kernels to rot and morph into black, deformed bulbs. Eventually, the mold infects the entire ear of corn, and the disease can even take over an entire corn field. The sight of the infected corn is borderline horrific, but the taste will make your tastebuds flutter.
To harvest it, the fungus is scraped off and is traditionally used in many Mexican dishes such as enchiladas and tacos. The tar-like, slimy black substance may look ugly at first, but it’s got a wonderfully mild mushroomy flavor. Almost truffle-like, in fact. It’s healthy too, loaded with protein, fiber, and tons of lysine, an essential amino acid. It’s no wonder why we’re seeing more and more Mexican restaurants embracing this tantalizing ingredient in their kitchens.
In San Diego, Tijuanian Chef Javier Plascencia celebrates BajaMed cuisine at his highly celebrated restaurant, Bracero, by preparing his huitlacoche in the form of a tamale, wrapped in a banana leaf and served with a miso cream sauce. Drool over the photo above.
At Loló in San Francisco, Chef Jorge Martínez is known for his huitlacoche ravioli. It’s made with a filling of the corn smut, portobello mushrooms, and requeson, a creamy Spanish ricotta, wrapped in wonton skins and the whole package is enveloped in a creamy poblano sauce.
Of course there’s Los Angeles, one of the Mexican food capitals of the world, where you can find huitlacoche spanning the width of the dining spectrum. You can get a $4 huitlacoche quesadilla from the quesadilla lady in Echo Park, to huitlacoche mole in the hip neighborhood of Eagle Rock.
NPR recently reported that huitlacoche is no longer a scourge, and that chefs are eager to showcase the delicacy on their menus. Last year, Michigan chef, Sean Brock, imported White Bolito corn seeds from Mexico to have it grown for the purpose of making house made tortillas for his restaurant. However, his grower, Nat Bradford, woke up one day to a devastating sight: all the corn that he had planted with Brock’s seeds, had become infected with the mold. He found it hard to break the news to the chef, but to his surprise, Brock was actually thrilled, and was looking forward to using it in his kitchen.
Today, the demand for the smut has fueled an underground huitlacoche growing movement. From mushroom farmers, to heirloom huitlacoche breeders, people are working hard to prevent the government from eradicating the strain. Even scientists are getting involved. Barry Selville of Trent University, runs a laboratory that has been working on producing an inoculating serum containing the mold, for the purpose of making easier for farmers to deliberately “infect” their corn.
It is easy to see how popular this once mysterious ingredient is becoming. Although huitlacoche may not be mainstream in America yet, do yourself a favor by getting ahead of the game and ordering it the next time you see it on a menu. I promise that you will not be disappointed.
Have you tried huitlacoche yet? Is it just a foodie trend of the moment, or is it here to stay? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Feature photo by: David Cohen|Flickr