By Julie Etra
This fungus, Ustilago maydis, which is parasitic on corn, has been considered part of the culinary heritage of Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. Cuitlacoche is the classic náhuatl (Aztec) word, Spanish-ized to huitlacoche since the Spaniards had a hard time with its pronunciation (this is reflected throughout Mexico, as various languages became mestizo-ized.) Cuitlacoche is derived from cuitlatl, which has been misinterpreted as meaning excrement, but actually means excrescence or outgrowth, comparative to a gall, and cochi, meaning sleep or sleeping. This is a good description of the parasitic fungi that grows in between and into the kernels of corn, impeding their development, leaving them ‘asleep’ and distorted.
Ustilago maydis potentially attacks all parts of the plant but most commonly the tender young ears. The outgrowths or galls are initially grey, which darken upon maturation. The reproductive spores are located in the spongy material and spores are easily spread, through wind, rain, irrigation and contact with a vector. The entire plant is infectious to the rest of the field crop.
As opposed to Mexico, elsewhere in the world corn farmers consider the fungus to be a pest and infected corn possessing the galls is destroyed to prevent its spread. In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has spent a considerable amount of time and money on efforts to eradicate it. In Mexico, the husks are often scraped to enhance contact of the spores with the kernels, thereby accelerating the infection.
And how is this fungus eaten? First, the galls or infected kernels are harvested when immature and still moist, prior to sporulation. Upon heating, the white or gray portions change to black, and are then ready for consumption. It can be prepared with garlic, epazote, and other sauces, or as an ingredient in quesadillas, tacos, omelets, soups, etc. It has been described as having a smoky, delicate flavor, and compared to other mushrooms such as Morchella (morel), prized by French and Spanish chefs. Appreciation and use of this fungus varies greatly depending on the context and location.
I have eaten it ‘fresh’ in ravioli at Los Danzantes in Oaxaca City, and have seen it as an accompanying ingredient in quesadillas. I was not crazy about the ravioli, and as I recall I had an issue with what I perceived as a mushy, gooey texture.
This Mexican delicacy can be more expensive than meat, and 10 times the price of uninfected ears. It is easy to find in cans, and I have seen it from time to time in Fruver and Hermanos Lucas in Huatulco, (both are local produce bodegas on Carrizal), as well as in numerous markets throughout Mexico. To appeal to us non-Mexicans, I would suggest that Mexican menus describe it as corn mushroom, as opposed to the less appealing corn smut. In fact, in 1989, the James Beard Foundation held a high-profile huitlacoche dinner, and tried to re-brand it as the more palatable Mexican truffle. Or try maize mushroom or Aztec caviar.
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
- 5 fresh epazote leaves
- 1 pound fresh corn truffles (huitlacoche)
- sea salt to taste
- 10 yellow corn tortillas
- 1 pound Oaxaca cheese, separated into strings
- Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat; stir in onion, garlic, jalapeno pepper, and epazote and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir corn truffles into onion mixture; cook and stir until truffle liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and keep warm.
- Heat a large griddle or skillet over medium heat until hot. Moisten both sides of two tortillas with water and place them, stacked together, onto the hot griddle; cook until the bottom tortilla is crisp, about 2 minutes. Flip the stacked tortillas and cook the other tortilla until crisp, about 2 minutes. Separate the two tortillas; place them separately, uncooked side down, onto the hot griddle. Cover the crisp side of one tortilla with 1/5 of the Oaxaca cheese; place 1/5 of the corn truffle mixture over the cheese, then lay the crisp side of the second tortilla on top to cover the truffle mix.
- Cook, turning once, until both tortillas are crisp and cheese is melted, about 3 minutes; repeat with remaining tortillas, cheese, and corn truffle mixture. Cut each quesadilla into four wedges to serve.