It's an unspoken rule that diseases are not things that you want to purposely consume. So if anyone ever offers to cook you something made out of a disease, just kindly say no... unless it's huitlacoche.
Huitlacoche (pronounced weet-la-COH-cheh) and sometimes spelled cuitlacoche in America, is a plant fungus often referred to as corn smut (appetizing name, right?).
And yet as gross at it sounds—and looks—it's a delicacy in Mexico, because its taste is as appetizing as the rest of it is unappetizing. Let's take a closer look at this bizarre ingredient.
Huitlacoche, or Ustilago maydis, is a fungus, but not a mushroom (contrary to some popular belief, not all fungi are mushrooms). Specifically, it is a pathogenic fungus that grows on corn.
The fungus— which looks a little like grey and black chicken liver—grows on ears of corn when rain water gets under the husks and causes rotting in the kernels. As the smut takes over the stalk, the ear of corn becomes useless, but the huitlacoche quickly grows to many times the size of the original kernels.
Ideally, the huitlacoche is harvested a few weeks after it infects the ear of corn, as this is when it is at its prime. As it grows older, it begins to dry out, which hurts its culinary abilities.
While huitlacoche isn't technically a mushroom, it's often used as a glorified one. It shares the earthy flavor of mushrooms, and has a similar texture (though it also has the sweetness of corn in it), making it a more exotic mushroom replacement. Huitlacoche was used by Aztecs in many staple dishes such as stews and tamales, and today it's very common in succotashes and quesadillas, or as a filling in any meal that might have mushrooms.
Huitlacoche is rather easy to cook with, sautés easily, and when it's a little dry, it absorbs liquid well. While fresh is ideal, you can also get it as a canned ingredient.
Interestingly, despite the fact that huitlacoche infects the corn, it actually significantly improves on the health benefits of corn. The fungus has notably more protein than healthy corn contains, and a far greater portion of lysine, an essential amino acid.
While huitlacoche is a widely recognized delicacy in Mexico, it still hasn't caught on much in the States. Corn farmers—who understandably see corn smut as the enemy—have gone to extreme measures to keep the disease at bay, though in recent years a few states have legalized the intentional infection of huitlacoche into crops. This has yet to make much of an impact, as it's still nearly impossible (though not entirely impossible) to find fresh huitlacoche in America, despite the fact that it's a market staple in Mexico.
Still, gourmet chefs in America are pushing for huitlacoche to become a more common ingredient, and it's started to pop up on many haute cuisine menus, often dubbed as the "Mexican Truffle," which offers insight into how many chefs view it. So keep your eye open! You just may see it on a menu, and it's worth a try.
If you want to cook with it yourself, check out local Latino grocers or even the "ethnic" aisle of some major supermarkets.. You can also buy it online. Several brands, including Goya, D'allesandro, and San Miguel are available, ranging from $8-$15 for around eight ounces (before shipping and at the time of writing).
While huitlacoche is primarily known for its unique, umami flavor, it also has value outside of the kitchen. It has been used medicinally, primarily as a labor inducer for many Native American tribes, though much of its medicinal reputation is unfounded.
Corn smut is also beloved in laboratories, as the growth resembles that of yeast, making it a prime model organism, and a perfect item for genetic modification.
For something classified as a disease and an infection, huitlacoche is pretty awesome. It's certainly weird, but sometimes that's a good thing.
Haven't heard of caul fat? Then you're missing out on one of the savoriest ingredients this side of bacon. If it's more umami flavor you're after, check out Marmite, the savory yeast spread beloved by many and reviled by many more. And if you're tired of sugar-filled desserts, get some black sapote, the fruit that tastes like chocolate.