Cuitlacoche is a fungus that grows spontaneously in corn. Ustilago Maydis, as it is known scientifically, is a soil borne organism that infects the growing points of corn kernels. It makes them swell to 10 times their normal size and turn to a silvery gray color. When a Mexican farmer discovers that his corn has been attacked by this fungus he is delighted, because cuitlacoche cannot be cultivated and he knows he can sell his crop at a much higher price: Cuitlacoche is considered a delicacy that has been eaten and appreciated since pre-Columbian times. In fact, the demand is so great that it can sell for up to twenty times the price of regular corn.
Conversely, in the United States cuitlacoche is known as “corn smut” because of its resemblance to soot or smut. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has spent considerable effort and money trying to eliminate it. When sweet corn, which is very susceptible to this “disease”, is attacked this causes significant economic losses to American farmers: Considering it a plague, they either destroy it or feed it to the pigs.
This fungus is simply one of the many mushrooms enjoyed by people all over the world. When the fungus attacks a young ear, it produces dark spores that fill what would normally be the kernels, deforming and swelling the ear. The affected kernels have a soft black flesh inside which is covered by a silvery skin. The texture is smooth and dry, kind of spongy. Famous cookbook author Diana Kennedy says that the flavor is perfectly delicious with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is almost impossible to describe. I would say it is smoky-sweet combined with a subtle corn taste.
You will probably never find fresh cuitlacoche or huitlacoche (variations from the Nahuatl name) outside of Mexico. It is sold in markets during the rainy season which goes from June to October. An early season drought seems to make the crop more abundant. It is available both on the cob, with part of the husk removed to display its quality, and as scraped kernels. It is also available canned year round in supermarkets.
Cuitlacoche has many uses in Mexican cuisine: wonderful soups, stuffings for crepes or quesadillas, sauces for meat, fish or chicken. Like truffles, it marries well with eggs. Cuitlacoches are sometimes called Mexican truffles, and there is certainly a color resemblance between them. Most recipes start by sautéing onion, garlic and chile in oil adding the coarsely chopped cuitlacoche and letting it cook until it turns a rich black and becomes a puree.
The USDA has started an experimental program to allow farmers in Florida and Pennsylvania to grow and sell cuitlacoche after some Mexican restaurants began to serve it in the United States. Only time will tell if Americans will fall in love with this delicacy with as much passion as Mexicans have had for centuries.
Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula.