One of my favorite things about living in a different culture is learning about local ingredients, and Mexican cuisine is full of interesting foods. Take huitlacoche, for example.
Huitlacoche (pronounced “weet-lah-ko-chay”) is an edible fungus that grows on corn, swelling the kernels into blue-gray mushroom-like galls and transforming it into a delicacy in Mexico. Before you turn up your nose at the idea, think of it just like any other mushroom – also fungus – and then you can realize its potential in cooking. Huitlacoche has a unique, earthy, mushroomy flavor with a touch of black truffle.
For any other biology nerds out there, the scientific name of the fungus is Ustilago maydis. The fungus is native to Mexico, but it is now found worldwide, spreading wherever corn is grown. That includes the United States, where U. maydis is considered a detrimental disease to the corn industry and we aggressively try to eradicate it. It also doesn’t help that in English we call it corn smut, which just doesn’t sound like something you would want to eat.
In just one more example of how we seem to be living in an opposite world south of the border, huitlacoche is a very valuable crop in Mexico. Huitlacoche has been a part of the diet of indigenous people living in Mexico and Latin America since pre-hispanic times. Also sometimes called “cuitlacoche”, the name comes from the native Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. Whether they knew it or not, it was an important nutritional supplement to their diet. The fungus actually improves the nutritional value of corn, adding essential nutrients and raising the protein content, with particularly high levels of lysine.
So can we stop calling it smut? It deserves so much better than that.
I prefer the popular nickname of “Mexican truffle.” The market for huitlacoche is expanding in the U.S., where this Mexican truffle is considered a gourmet specialty item served at high-end restaurants. In fact, our first exposure to huitlacoche was in Washington DC with the quesadillas at Todd English’s upscale Mexican restaurant MXDC. (By the way, they are still on the menu.)
There is ongoing research into ways to intentionally cultivate the fungus to meet the growing demand. Most fresh huitlacoche that we find at the markets is harvested from natural infections in the corn fields. While some parts of central Mexico have the right climate to produce huitlacoche year round, it is mostly a seasonal product, with the fungus growing during the rainy season from July through September. In San Miguel de Allende, we have found it packaged in the fresh produce section of the grocery stores throughout the summer. In the U.S. you might be able to find it canned or frozen in a Mexican grocery store.
Typical preparations include cooking it with tomato, chili peppers, garlic, onion and epazote (a Mexican herb) and using it to fill quesadillas or tacos. It is also added to soups and mixed into salsas. Locally in San Miguel restaurants, we’ve found it blended with milk and cheese to make a sort of “fondue” and even stuffed into ravioli.
Cooking at home, we have found that huitlacoche is easy to use and works well in any recipe that normally calls for mushrooms. Once cooked, it is delicious stirred into scrambled eggs or folded into an omelette.
We made creamy Spanish-style Huitlacoche Croquetas by modifying our Mushroom Croqueta recipe. We replaced half of the mushrooms with huitlacoche, which added a deeper complexity and truffle essence, eliminating the need for the truffle oil. Roughly chopped huitlacoche and mushrooms were sauteed in olive oil with shallot, fresh thyme, and chipotle pepper. A thick béchamel sauce was then created around the mixture and used to form croquetas. See our Mushroom Croqueta recipe for details.
Recipes for huitlacoche tacos and quesadillas are easy to find online. Chef Rick Bayless cooks huitlacoche with roasted poblano peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and espazote to create a taco filling. For simple quesadillas, the Mexican culinary website Cocina Delirante offers a recipe combining huitlacoche with onions, garlic, serrano peppers, and epazote.
If you love mushrooms and black truffles, don’t miss the chance to try fresh huitlacoche during Mexico’s rainy season.