Culture

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.

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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?

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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.  

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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? 

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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. 

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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.

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Sopes were built to showcase the flavor of its toppings, which make them the perfect vessel for huitlacoche. 

Or in a gordita. 

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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. 

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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. 

The Faces Of The Amazon: Here Are Some Of The Tribes Threatened By Brazil’s Dangerous Policies

Culture

The Faces Of The Amazon: Here Are Some Of The Tribes Threatened By Brazil’s Dangerous Policies

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The recent fires in the Amazonian rainforest put this region under the spotlight. Most of the conversations revolved around the ecological damage that the catastrophic fires produced and the corruption that led to unscrupulous land clearings. However, there was a direct human cost as well. Various indigenous groups that have been decimated since their first encounter with European invaders are now facing the threat of illegal industries and governments, such as the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil. The destruction of natural resources is not the only threat they face. They are also at risk of losing their cultural and religious identity as they are forced to learn Spanish or Portuguese and evangelization efforts are stronger than ever from many denominations.

Here are some of the indigenous peoples that call the Amazon their home. Please do us un favorcito: if you visit the Amazon and encounter some of the original owners of the land, please approach them with the dignity and respect you would like to be treated with. Don’t go back home calling them “exotic” or “weird.” If you want to photograph them, please be respectful and ask for permission. 

The Amazon is home to indigenous communities that have survived traumatic processes of colonization by the Spanish and the Portuguese and then the mistreatment by governments that fail to protect their lands.

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The original owners of the land of what is now the Amazon in Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Guyana have a millenary relationship to the land and knowledge of the rhythms of nature from which we could all learn. However, they have historically been underestimated and controlled by governments and institutions that see them with a mestizo gaze.

Waorani peoples in Ecuador

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They are also known as Waos and they are an Amerindian group that has marked differences with other indigenous Ecuadorians like the Quechua. Their community is relatively small: about 4,000 individuals who live between the Curaray and Napo Rivers. They were a hunting and gathering society and now have to live in settlements due to the threats of oil exploitation and illegal logging, two practices that have decimated their lands. They speak Huaorani, which has no known relationship to any other language. 

The Waorani might be small in numbers, but they are combative and have recently filed court cases claiming the protection of their lands.

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The Waorani have stood up for their rights recently, as the Ecuadorian government attempts to take control of their lands. As reported by U-Wire: “The legal battle over the rainforest was filed by the Waorani people in February. through the Ecuadorian parliament. Ecuador had been auctioning off blocks of the forest for logging or mineral extraction to international companies. According to Reuters, the tribe had been battling an on-going court case concerning the selling of sacred Amazonian lands to oil companies”. 

Yanomami peoples in Venezuela and Brazil

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This group is made up of approximately 35,000 people who live in the border of Venezuela and Brazil. There are between 200 and 250 Yanomami villages today. They practice shamanism, just like many indigenous Amazonian tribes that hold a spiritual bond with the flora, fauna, and soil on which they live. 

By the way, the lives of the Yanomami are currently being threatened by illegal mining operations.

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According to the BBC, “ there are ‘thousands’ of prospectors operating in the Yanomami indigenous land in Roraima.” The Yanomami have historically survived numerous threats, but their current situation is close to catastrophic due to lack of government protection under the Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil.

Tucano peoples in Brazil and Colombia

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The Tucano people live in the northwestern Amazon, alongside the Vaupes River. They are made up of different tribes. They have a particular linguistic practice: no man can marry a woman who speaks his language. This practice creates a network of linguistic exchange that is quite unique in the world. Rather than an ethnic group with a distinct identity, the Tucano is a group of tribes put under an umbrella term for being geographically close. 

Ticuna peoples in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru

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They are the most numerous tribe in the Brazilian Amazon with a population of approximately 36,000 individuals. There are about 6,000 Ticuna in Colombia and 7,000 in Peru. They only marry and procreate within their ethnic group, which makes them quite distinct from other groups. They also practice shamanism. Most of them are fluent in Spanish or Portuguese and some of them have converted to Christianity as there are strong evangelization efforts in their region. 

The Ticuna have suffered a lot since colonial times when they came in contact with the Portuguese.

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During the 19th century they were used as slaves by the rubber cultivation industry. They have subsequently suffered violence from loggers, fishermen and other groups that try to exploit their lands. They are currently facing another threat that has decimated indigenous populations throughout Latin America: drug cartels. As EFE News Service reported in June 2017: “Near the triple border of Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, many members of the Ticuna Indian tribe are working as laborers for cocaine drug traffickers, a business that has transformed their lives and supplanted the activities and customs that some of them are now trying to salvage by returning to legal pursuits”. It has been hard for many Ticuna to go back to legal crops since the gains minuscule compared to coca crops. 

Secoya peoples in Ecuador and Peru

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They are also known as AngoteroEncabelladoHuajoyaPiojéSiekopai. They speak Pai Coca and could be considered part of the Tucanoan group. They are a very small group compared to the Ticuna. There are about 400 Secoyas in Ecuador and 700 in Peru. Their culture is being decimated (some have the nerve to call this “assimilation” as if it was a positive thing) by the presence of oil companies, missionaries who convert them to Christianity and mestizos who occupy their lands. 

Cubeo peoples in Colombia

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The name “Cubeo” is a Spanish name used to call a group that calls themselves “people” (pâmiwâ) or “my people” (jiwa). They live in the Northwestern Amazon, alongside the Vapues river. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 Cubeo individuals. The Cubeo people, despite their low numbers, are outspoken when it comes to environmental matters. As CE Noticias Financieras reported back in 2018, a Cubeo representative told an assembly of European authorities: “It is not fair that we are looking for solutions to climate change and we are not thinking about how to protect the true forest keepers, who are us, the indigenous people”. That is absolutely right: the original owners of the land are the true and most knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the rhythms of nature and the best ways to protect it. 

Long story short, we better start listening to indigenous communities. They know the earth and its resources better than we do.

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Amazonians are fighting for the planet, not just for themselves. The idea that their future is also our future is absolutely right: the original owners of the land are the true and most knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the rhythms of nature and the best ways to protect it.

READ: Brazil Finally Banned Burning In The Amazon Yet 4,000 New Fires Have Started In Last 48 Hours

LA’s Evil Cooks Has Introduced A Flan Taco And The Internet Definitely Has Some Feelings About It

Culture

LA’s Evil Cooks Has Introduced A Flan Taco And The Internet Definitely Has Some Feelings About It

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The taco is such a beloved culinary treasure because of its versatility. The formula is pretty simple and straight-forward: tortilla, meat and toppings. You can eat it at any time of day; morning, noon and late night. And you can stuff anything in there. You have your fish tacos, your breakfast tacos, savory tacos and vegan tacos. Now without further ado, we present you with the dessert taco you didn’t know you needed, the sweet taco.

Yeah, yeah, the idea of a sweet version of the Mexican classic might make you cringe a little, but hear us out—this one’s worth it.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re into carnitas, birria, suadero, or pastor, we promise you, if you love tacos and you love flan, this bad boy is all you need for dessert. 

The flan taco comes to you courtesy of Balam Kitchen a taco haven in Lynwood, and  Evil Cooks, an LA Chicano kitchen pop up duo by Alex Garcia aka Pobre Diablo and Elvia Huerta, La Bruja. Needless to say that the collaboration brought the big guns to Taco Madness—LA’s longest running Taco Festival—with their unconventional creation this year.

Taco lovers waited in long lines to try the best of all nine taquerías featured at the festival.

But all we keep hearing about, months after the debut of this creative invention in May, is the ‘flan taco’ and how obsessed everyone is with it.

Garcia, former chef at Pomona’s Mexican restaurant, Dia De Los Puercos, wanted to create a sweet taco, and what better Mexican dessert to use for his invention than the classic custard and caramel delight that everyone loves: flan. Sticking to the original recipe for the flan, he decided to use ‘tuile’ for the tortilla. Tuile is a baked wafer similar to that used for Chinese fortune cookies. He added corn masa to make it pliable like any good tortilla should be, and voila! The result was a sweet tortilla, similar to a pancake or a crepe. 

The classic milk-based flan was infused with citrus and coconut, and it sits atop the innovative fortune cookie-style tortilla. What about the toppings, you might ask? Nothing short of an explosion of flavor: mint, a twist of orange and, drumroll please, crushed Polvorones. Yes that’s right, the classic orange-flavored cookies abuelos all over Mexico have been dunking in their coffees since time immemorial. 

La Bruja’, the name they gave to their flan taco, embodies Huerta and Garcia’s rich yet opposing personalities.

Both sweet and savory, unexpected and provocative. Garcia was born into a family of bakers in Queretaro, Mexico. He moved to the US when he was 14 and has since held several jobs in the food industry, from dish washer to Chef. Huerta is originally from El Sereno and enrolled in culinary school at a young age. She has been a cook at UCLA for over a decade, where she’s gotten used to cooking with massive quantities. 

Despite their vastly different backgrounds and experiences with food, they agree that what they create at Evil Cooks is “the food of their childhoods”.

“We want people to taste our food and be reminded of home,” says Garcia. The sweet concoction had taco-lovers so impressed that Zach Brooks, general manager of Smorgasburg LA, called it “a plated dessert you’d find at the best Mexican restaurant in the city”, next thing you know, he offered Balam Taco x Evil Cooks, an eight week residency at the Smorg’s Ice Cream Alley. 

Keep up with the nomadic pop-up to try the flan taco and some of their other unique creations. Evil Cooks’ itinerant menu changes fairly often, and always includes innovative takes on Mexican classics, like a chilaquiles breakfast burrito, fideo taco (complete with queso fresco and crema), shell crab tacos and more, tortas, gorditas, and more.

Don’t miss Balam Kitchen’s chicano food in Lynwood. Evil Cooks pops up weekly at various spots in LA. Find them at Sara’s Market, El Café by Primera Taza and Smorgasburg. They also cater private events and gigs.