Cooking for engineers

E&T describes a little known Mexican dish that tastes better than it looks.

During the last two decades there has been a transformation in the way Americans have been thinking of Mexican food. In many parts of the US, Mexican food is often thought of as fast
or cheap - nothing more than corn flatbreads topped with cheese or steamed into various shapes.

Despite this popular (and obviously inaccurate) view, Mexican cuisine found itself a place in fine dining and brought in a variety of new ingredients. Perhaps, the most intriguing of those is huitlacoche.

Huitlacoche (which I'm told is pronounced 'wheat-la-KO-che') tastes better than it looks. Usually, after preparation and cooking, it resembles a lumpy slime varying in colour from jet-black to blue-black. The texture of huitlacoche is like a blend of woodear and button mushrooms, cooked until completely softened. The flavour is a mixture of cremini (brown mushrooms), some slight smokiness and the earthiness of black truffles. In short, huitlacoche is delicious, but don't open your mouth too wide while eating it because it looks pretty gross.

What exactly is huitlacoche? It's the contents of immature tumours caused by the infection of corn kernels with the parasitic fungus Ustilago maydis (which can naturally affect corn). The fungus usually infects the ears and changes normal kernels into large bloated masses of corn, fungus protein and black spores contained within a silver grey sheath (or pouch). The stringy protein and residual corn material provide the slimy texture while the spores contribute to the colour. These growths, called galls, eventually dry up and break open to release powdery spores which infect more corn (via waterborne transmission). However, if harvested early, around three weeks into the infection, the galls are still moist and can weigh up to half a kilogram per ear.

In the US, this parasitic affliction is called corn smut (because of the black sooty mess that the mature spores can make). It lowers farmers' corn production and can ruin an entire crop. At the same time, in Mexico and other Central American countries, corn is purposely infected with the fungus to grow the delicacy. Dining on the infected corn may have originated from the Aztecs living in Mexico and Central America, who provided the name huitlacoche from the Nahuatl (the Aztec language) words quitlatl and cochtli meaning 'sleeping dung'. (Wikipedia references a website that claims it means 'raven's excrement' - perhaps a linguist can settle this argument.)

A bit of science

Huitlacoche has an interesting life cycle. After the contents of the tumorous kernels dry up and are no longer an epicurean delight, the kernels burst and release their powdery contents (tough spores called teliospores).

These teliospores, capable of surviving adverse conditions, are scattered to other areas. Once spring arrives, basidia (fungal structures that produce specialised reproductive spores) grow from the teliospores and release basidiospores (the spores that infect corn).

The basidiospores infect the kernels of corn most easily, but can also infect the stem or the tassels. As the corn grows, the huitlacoche starts to develop into a filamentous form filling the kernels and producing and releasing teliospores.

Not a mushroom

The Aztecs were known to use the sweet, earthy fungal matter in tamales (from the Nahuatl tamalli meaning 'steamed cornmeal'), blended into soups and eaten straight after cooking with a little fat in a pot. Mexican cuisine naturally incorporated the fungus as it blended Aztec dishes with Spanish. Given the complex combinations of aromatic compounds found in huitlacoche, which include sotolon (one of the flavour components in maple syrup and molasses) and vanillin (the chief flavour compound found in vanilla beans after sweating and drying), it is no surprise that the fungus quickly found a place in Mexican cuisine.

As Americans and others around the world discover the amazing taste of huitlacoche, farmers are beginning to realise that growing corn smut may be worth more than the corn it infects. Unfortunately, marketing the fungus hasn't been easy since farmers have a hard time pricing the product: consumers are still mostly unaware of it and buyers are few and far between. Fortunately, celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter are spreading the word.

In California, where www.cookingforengineeers.com is based, it is possible to purchase huitlacoche in canned form at specialty stores and Mexican grocers. Fresh huitlacoche is sometimes available at farmer's markets.

In an effort to make the ingredient more enticing, a now legendary all-huitlacoche dinner at the James Beard Foundation was recently prepared by chef Josephina Howard, who aptly named the delicacy 'Mexican truffle'.

Although it's sometimes called corn mushroom, and it can indeed taste like one, huitlacoche is not a mushroom. Indeed mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.

In the end, it doesn't really matter. If you can get over the origins and the appearance of huitlacoche, I definitely encourage you to try it when the opportunity arises. And, although it might be difficult to find it in shops in your part of the world, cans of huitlacoche can be mail-ordered from
www.GourmetSleuth.com

A good way to introduce yourself to the taste of huitlacoche is to add a little quantity of it to an omelette.

For more enthralling cooking facts and recipes visit Michael Chu's award-winning website www.cookingforengineers.com [new window].

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