Huitlacoche – Corn smut

Corn (elote in Mexico) is one of the pillars of the Mexican cuisine.

Corn Smut

Since its domestication and artificial selection in Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley, this plant spread to the rest of the Americas by 2500 BC, and to the rest of the World during the 15th century.

Summer in this Tehuacan Valley brings high levels of humidity and heat on the parcels where milpa is grown, which is ideal for the development of several fungus species, particularly the parasitic smut fungi. This infection overgrows and bloats the kernels of the corncob, giving them a burned, scorched appearance, with blue and black colours staining the natural yellow. This characteristic effect made the Aztecs name this infection huitlacoche, also popoyotl, both Nahuatl words meaning ‘burnt maize’.

What in other parts of the World is a deadly disease that makes farmers destroy entire crops, here the Aztecs considered this a delicacy, a gift from the gods with mystical and aphrodisiac properties. They even harvested it, intentionally infecting their corn by scratching the base of the plant with a mud-smeared knife, as the spores can last up to three years in the soil.

Corncobs with smut

The infected corncobs are harvested about two weeks after infection, when they still keep moisture, as fully-developed smut makes them dry and spore-filled. They are separated from the cob individually; afterwards, their shelf life becomes drastically short: two weeks tops, as the spores take over, going all rancid from fermentation.

Picture from <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/51989827@N00/" title="Flickr Tania de la Paz" target="_blank">Tania de la Paz</a>, under CC license

A close-up of infected corn kernels. Photo courtesy of Tania de la Paz

Mexican cuisine still uses huitlacoche. It is cooked like any other mushroom; their taste is even quite alike. Not only traditional dishes like tacos, quesadillas, or omelette include this ingredient, but also modern restaurants use it for fancy, fusion recipes. Some self-glorified cooks call it ‘the Mexican truffle’, which I think it is way too much to say, but well… I never got the deal with truffles either, so don’t take my opinion for an expert one…

Chicken quesadilla with huitlacoche. Photo courtesy of bionicgrrrl

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Uncredited pictures on this post are from the great galleries of the CIMMYT, under CC license.

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2 comments

    1. Thanks! It tastes like mushrooms to be honest, so if you are not told what they are, nobody notices…! And yes, it doesn’t really ‘look’ good, but wrapped in a taco or a burrito, it totally boosts meat’s flavor 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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