Huitlacoche, pronounced weet-la-COH-cheh, is a fungus that grows on ears of corn. It is also known as cuitlacoche, corn smut, and Mexican truffle. It is a plant disease that causes smut--multicellular fungi with many spores--to grow on maize and is a delicacy in Mexico. The fungus affects every part of the corn and causes the kernels to swell up into mushroom-like growths called galls.
Appearance and Flavor
The fungus grows directly on the corn kernels and if it grows large enough it can be seen through the husk. It is blue-grayish with some white and looks similar to most mushrooms with a soft and velvety texture. The canned versions are often black and liquidy. Huitlacoche has a very pungent earthy, sweet yet savory and woody taste with flavors of mushroom and corn. It is harvested two or three weeks after the corn has become infected--the immature huitlacoche still retains moisture, versus the fully-mature galls which are dry and filled with spores.
Huitlacoche dates back to the Aztecs who enjoyed the naturally-occurring corn fungus as part of their diet. They would use the corn and the attached fungus in tamales and stews. Many Native American tribes also consumed the fungus and viewed it as a delicacy. Interestingly, huitlacoche has one of the highest protein contents of all the mushroom family and more protein than corn itself. In addition, the fungus is very high in the amino acid lysine, which is almost nonexistent in corn.
Although American farmers view the fungus as a disease and take steps to prevent it from occurring, Mexicans consider the fungus a delicacy and enjoy it prepared in various dishes--such as in succotash or omelets--or as a filling for tacos or tamales. When cooking huitlacoche, it must be simmered slowly to allow the starch to separate from the fungus and turn a dark black color.
In Mexico, huitlacoche can be purchased at street or farmers markets. Farmers have been known to intentionally spread the spores to create more fungus.