This Traditional Mexican Ingredient Is Ending Up On More And More Menus In The US But Do You Know What It Is?
Corn smut, fungus, Mexican truffle — these are just some of the aliases of huitlacoche(pronounced whee-tla-KOH-cheh). But what exactly is this soft, spreadable and dark-as-night ingredient? In simple terms, it’s a plant disease (yes, it’s a parasite) that grows on ears of corn around the kernels in puffy, gray clouds that look kind of like river stones. But when you take this strange fungus into the culinary world, huitlacoche becomes a delicacy used in all sorts of dishes from soups to enchiladas to sauces.
This is an ingredient that Indigenous people have been working with for centuries but as it becomes more common on menus across the US, people are wondering what exactly it is.
Yes, it’s even referred to as the Mexican truffle.
Because it’s technically a fungus, much like the ultra expensive truffle, many restaurants – especially upscale ones – across the US are truing to market it as a truffle. Sure. Whatever floats your boat.
So where is this Mexican delicacy from, exactly?
The name huitlacoche is Nahuatl, which is the language of the Aztecs still spoken by more than a million people in Central Mexico today. Utilizing this ingredient also dates back to this time. Corn, or maize, was a staple in the Aztecs’ diet, and they used the corn fungus mainly in tamales and stews.
The Native American Hopi and Zuni tribes have also worked with huitlacoche from the get-go. The former called the fungus “nanha,” and the latter held the ingredient in such high standing they say it symbolized the “generation of life.” In fact, huitlacoche has been an important food for indigenous peoples of the Southwest for centuries. So much so that the fungus has ceremonial, culinary and medicinal uses. As far as the healthfulness aspect is concerned, huitlacoche offers more protein than regular corn and has high amounts of lysine, an essential amino acid not found in normal kernels.
Nowadays, chefs are popularizing this once lesser known ingredient in restaurants from LA to NYC.
Of course, as they say, an ingredient could be used for thousands of years by a certain culture but once the white folk ‘discover’ it, it’s said to have gone mainstream. Although it’s true that many US-based chefs are cooking with huitlacoche, it’s still predominantly an ingredient you’ll only find in Mexican driven kitchens.
Ok, where can I get it?
Huitlacoche can be bought at most Mexican food specialty stores and comes frozen, jarred or canned. Since you don’t have to strip the corn of the fungus, using huitlacoche in this way proves pretty easy and requires little to no prep. If you do happen upon it fresh, pick the spores when they are light gray in color on the outside and have a spongy texture. Firm samples are overripe and bitter. For a superior earthy-corn taste, go for huitlacoche that forms on the ears, not the stalk. Occasionally, you may find this ideal huitlacoche at a farmers’ market
Now, I’ve got it. What can I do with it?
Since it’s technically a vegetable, you can use it raw. And because it’s a soft fungus, you don’t have to worry about chopping, pureeing or shredding, especially if you get it in a can or frozen. If you do manage to source some fresh huitlacoche, first thank the corn gods, then throw it into dishes whole, or delicately tear it apart with your fingers. Don’t be surprised when the gray fungus turns black with heat — this is a signature characteristic of the ingredient and the reason why many dishes that contain huitlacoche have a dark hue.
At the Rosa Mexicana chain, executive regional chef Joe Quintana says the ingredient goes with so many things, you will have no trouble finding a way to play with it: “Huitlacoche has many uses, and its earthy flavor gives you options to put it into dishes as well as sauces.” At the restaurants, he has paired it with chicken, beef and, surprise, more corn! He also says it goes particularly well with cheese, especially in quesadillas. In a way, you can think of pairing huitlacoche with items that you would normally add mushrooms to, and beyond
Here are some of our favorite uses for this delightfully tasty ingredient.
Quesadillas de huitlacoche are a go-to on the streets of Mexico City and the earthy flavor of huitlacoche (which also somehow tastes similar to corn) pairs perfectly with the fried masa and salsas. Remember, in Mexico City quesadillas don’t traditionally come with cheese – you have to ask if you want ‘em cheesy.
You can also throw huitlacoche on top of a sope.
Sopes were built to showcase the flavor of its toppings, which make them the perfect vessel for huitlacoche.
Or in a gordita.
Paired with the crisp dough of a gordita, the flavor of the huitlacoche is allowed to shine through and I couldn’t be happier when I eat a huitlacoche gordita.
They also make an amazing filling for enchiladas.
Because of their rich, earthy flavor, enchiladas de huitlacoche are often served bathed in a rich mole sauce. Seriously, one of my favorite go-to dishes. It’s rich and kinda heavy but you don’t regret a thing. Get a super good recipe here.