By Melissa Kruse-Peeples, NS/S Conservation Program Manager. Published on August 26, 2014.
Corn is a versatile ingredient. It is fresh roasted, ground to make cornbread or tortillas, dried and reconstituted into posole, and everything in between. But there is one way to eat and cook corn that may come to a surprise to many. Huitlacoche, pictured here, is a corn lover’s delicacy. Trust me, it is edible and delicious.
Huitlacoche, pronounced whee-tla-KO-cheh, a type of fungus that can infect corn plants. The fungus Ustiago maydis causes galls, or tumor-like growths similar to mushrooms, to form. Typically the growths replace normal kernels within an ear of corn but it can also appear along the stalk. Corn plants that have been damaged by wind or hail before the ears grow are much more susceptible to forming huitlacoche. Some farmers purposefully infect their fields with the spores of huitlacoche or cut slits in the corn stalks to infect plants. The unusual and highly desired growths can fetch a hefty price for market growers. If you do not desire this, remove infected plants from your field before they dry and spores are released. Do not compost. But we suggest at least trying it first.
The term huitlacoche is used throughout Mexico and is derived from Nahuatl, the language spoken by many indigenous peoples from Central Mexico. In the United States this fungus is often called corn smut but I prefer the term corn truffles as a more attractive way to describe the sought-after culinary delicacy. While the consumption of huitlacoche is often attributed to Mexico it is also an important ingredient among Native Americans. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest have ceremonial, medicinal and culinary uses for this type of corn. Huitlacoche is higher in protein than regular corn and also has high amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid that corn lacks.
The taste is similar to portabello mushrooms with a corn-flavored note. But much more earthy. The first time I had huitlacoche it was stuffed inside a chicken breast and smothered with enchilada sauce. Honestly, I thought it tasted like dirt. Maybe it was too mature? Or worse, maybe it was from a can? But luckily I tried it again and became a huge fan. Every other preparation – quesadillas, sautéed with calabacitas, served with pasta and marinara – was amazing! I am a huge mushroom and corn fan and huitlacoche is like the best of both worlds!
Many people see huitlacoche and erroneously think it is the result of some biotechnology experiment gone wrong. It is not a type of frankenfood and has nothing to do with corporate gene manipulation or the overuse of pesticides. It is a natural phenomenon. While it may look scary to some, it shouldn’t be.
But there is a connection between huitlacoche and the loss of biodiversity with the rise of hybrid and genetically modified seeds. But it is a different connection than most people think. Huitlacoche more commonly occurs within landrace varieties like those stewarded by Native Seeds/SEARCH. Landraces are farmer-developed agricultural varieties that adapted to specific natural and cultural environments. Therefore they are typically more genetically and phenotypically diverse, which gives them additional resiliency. Recently NS/S was visited by a woman from Chiapas who told stories of how her and her family would walk the corn fields looking for the fungus among the plants. In doing so they would spend time together, hear elders tell stories, and become closer to their land and crops. Recently finding this delicacy is very difficult and some community members have never seen it in person. The tradition of enjoying huitlacoche was disappearing. Many farmers in the area, under economic and political pressures, have adopted hybrid or transgentico seeds, and therefore the genetic diversity that welcomes the formation of huitlacoche. Loss of agricultural biodiversity has led to a loss of a cultural tradition in this area and so many like it. This story reminds me that seeds are much more than the source of food. They are family, history, life.
If you find these strange, delicate growths on your corn I encourage you to give them a try. Huitlacoche should be picked when it is white to light grey in color on the outside an has a spongy feeling. If it is too firm it will likely be overripe and have a bitter taste. Eventually the galls will break open and start to disintegrate so catch it early. When the galls form they push out of the husks so it is fairly easy to spot on your corn. Go for the galls that form within the ears for a corny taste instead of those that form on the stalks. You can also occasionally find huitlacoche in Mexican markets. Canned versions exist and while I have not tried them I doubt they are the same as fresh.
Huitlacoche Quesadillas: One of the most common huitlacoche preparations is to serve it up inside a quesadilla. Sautée sliced huitlacoche with onions. Layer inside a tortilla with cheese and cook until cheese is melted. And don’t use just any tortilla or cheese. Make fresh ground corn tortillas and use authentic Mexican cheese such as Queso de Oaxaca.
Quelites de Huitlacoche: Quelites can be any number of plants in Mexico eaten for their leafy greens including amaranth. Sautée sliced huitlacoche with quiletes to give the greens a cheese-like flavor.
Tamales de Huitlacoche: Prepare your favorite tamales. When assembling, put a spoonful of sautéed huitlacoche down the center of the masa. Pairs well with the sweetness of green corn tamales.
Huitlacoche Pasta: The ultimate fusion preparation. Sautée huitlacoche with onions and garlic in olive oil. Add your favorite marinara sauce and serve over cooked pasta with a crumbled queso fresco. This is an inspiration from a dish Janos Wilder of Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails made for a NS/S dinner in 2013.