Smutty Ears: Why Corn Fungus Is Prized

published Jul 21, 2016
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(Image credit: Milos4U)

Fungus is typically a problem gardeners and farmers try their hardest to prevent. But when it comes to corn, the smut (or fungus that can infect the kernels) can prove more valuable than the corn itself. Here’s why corn smut is such a prized and beloved food for one culture.

What Is Corn Smut?

Corn smut, or huitlacoche (pronounced weet-la-KOH-cheh) as it’s known in Mexico, is a type of fungus that grows on corn. It typically grows directly on the kernels (although it can also grown in the silks, tassels, and husk), in spongy, whitish-gray to blue-black masses called galls. The fungus, which is naturally present in soil, infects the corn through wounds caused by cultivation, hail, and insects.

So what is it exactly, about these dingy looking, misshapen galls that make them so appealing and appetizing?

Learn More About This Ingredient: Huitlacoche

It’s All About Tradition and Taste

Lesley Téllez, author of Eat Mexico and co-founder of the Mexico City culinary walking tour of the same name, says it’s a combination of history, tradition, and taste that makes huitlacoche such a sought-after food.

Corn was first domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago. It’s a staple that has a rich history throughout the country, and particularly in Central Mexico. And along with the cultivation of corn came smut, or huitlacoche, a byproduct that came to have just as much, if not more, value.

Tradition runs strong when it comes to food in Mexico. Most grow up eating huitlacoche, and simply become attached to eating it from an early age. It’s a food people see their grandmother cook, followed by their mother, and eventually they come to prepare huitlacoche in their own kitchens, not to mention enjoying it from street vendors.

And then, of course, Lesley happily tells me, there’s the taste. Just from the tone of her voice and the way she describes it, my desire to try this odd-looking fungus has never been greater. “Huitlacoche has such a unique taste! It’s sort of mushroom-y and intensely earthy, and even a little corn.” There’s nothing else that quite compares to it. Even the texture, which bears some similarity to mushrooms (although softer, less meaty, and more fragrant), is all its own.

In the Kitchen with Huitlacoche

Despite the innovation happening in modern Mexican cooking, tradition usually wins out when it comes to huitlacoche. “It’s been cooked and stuffed into crepes and blended into pasta sauces, among other dishes, but the most popular way to eat it is still the traditional way.” And by traditional, Téllez is referring to the humble-yet-satisfying quesadilla. The corn smut is sautéed with garlic, corn, and perhaps some chiles and then folded into a tortilla.

Perhaps you’ve seen huitlacoche on a menu here or there, but it’s unlikely you’ll come across it fresh at any local markets. It’s extremely difficult to find in the U.S. To say most farmers in the U.S. consider this blight to be a pest would be an understatement. Along with the U.S. government, farmers have taken steps to try to knock it out and even produce strains of corn immune to it.

Most canned varieties are worth a pass, but Lesley mentioned she has a jar of Endotzi Huitlacoche, a brand from Mexico, in her fridge right now, and it’s pretty good. It can be hard to come by in the U.S., but as with most produce, fresh is usually best. “If you’ve only ever had canned, don’t give up on huitlacoche. You’ve got to try it fresh.”

Have you ever cooked or eaten huitlacoche?