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Corn smut is a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis. Known in Latin America as huitlacoche, it is eaten, usually as a filling in quesadillas and other tortilla-based foods.    Whether referred to as “corn smut” or “huitalacoche”, this food may not necessarily inspire one’s appetite. However, just like mushrooms which is also a fungus, this corn smut has an earthy and sometimes smoky flavor profile that may be more appealing than you think.  Huitalacoche is still an unknown food to many, so let’s learn a little more about it.

Characteristics

Although it can infect any part of the plant it usually enters the ovaries and replaces the normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumors analogous to mushrooms. These tumors, or “galls”, are made up of much-enlarged cells of the infected plant, fungal threads, and blue-black spores. The spores give the cob a burned, scorched appearance. The name Ustilago comes from the Latin word ustilare (to burn).

Culinary Uses

Smut feeds off the corn plant and decreases the yield. Usually smut-infected crops are destroyed. Some farmers may also choose to prepare corn silage out of the smutted corn. It is most popular in Mexico, where known as “huitlacoche”, it can be regularly found as an option in meals. The consumption of corn smut originates from ancient Aztec cuisine and is still considered a delicacy in Mexico, even being preserved and sold for a significantly higher price than corn. For culinary use, the galls are harvested while still immature — fully mature galls are dry and almost entirely spore-filled. The immature galls, gathered two to three weeks after an ear of corn is infected, still retain moisture and, when cooked, have a flavor described as mushroom-like, sweet, savory, woody, and earthy. Flavor compounds include sotolon and vanillin, as well as the sugar glucose.

The fungus has had difficulty entering into the American and European diets as most farmers see it as blight, despite attempts by government and high profile chefs. In the mid-1990s, due to demand created by high-end restaurants, Pennsylvania and Florida farms were allowed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche. Most observers consider the program to have had little impact, although the initiative is still in progress. Regardless, the cursory show of interest is significant because the USDA has spent a considerable amount of time and money trying to eradicate huitlacoche in the United States. Moreover, in 1989 the James Beard Foundation held a high-profile huitlacoche dinner. This dinner famously tried to get Americans to eat more of it by renaming it the Mexican truffle.

Other Uses

Native Americans of the American Southwest, including the Zuni tribe, have used corn smut to induce labor. It has similar medicinal effects to ergot, but weaker, due to the presence of the chemical ustilagine.

Availability

In Mexico Huitlacoche is mostly consumed fresh and can be purchased at restaurants, street or farmer’s markets throughout the country. Huitlacoche, to a much lesser degree, can also be purchased as a canned good in some markets and via the internet. Some farmers markets and organic growers are endeavoring to bring fresh huitlacoche to their customers and local food service trade.

It turns out that huitalacoche is even good for you.  For more info, click here. To get a taste of this “Mexican Truffle” for yourself, look below for some restaurants to check out.

El Huarache Azteca #2
1378 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90026
(213) 250-4567

El Huarache Loco in Alemany Farmer’s Market
100 Alemany Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94110

Hugo’s
1602 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77006
(713) 524-7744

Mundial Cocina Mestiza
1640 W 18th St
Chicago, IL 60608
(312) 491-9908

Zarela Restaurant
953 2nd Ave
New York, NY 10022
(212) 644-6740

Posted by on June 1st, 2010

Filed In: Condiments

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