Most people would squirm if they found a fungal disease in their quesadilla. But there is one disease of corn infiltrating U.S. kitchens in recent years—and it’s delicious.
Huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche (weet-la-COH-cheh), is an edible fungus caused by common corn smut that infects various corn crops. In Chicago, you can find huitlacoche quesadillas at Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur in Logan Square, or huitlacoche tamales at Topolobamo in River North.
It has long been considered a delicacy in Mexico, and is quickly gaining popularity in U.S. Mexican cuisine. Indigenous tribes in central Mexico were probably the first to benefit from their corn losses by eating the fungus itself. Now that the plant pathogen has gained popularity among chefs and “foodies” in the U.S., farmers have begun intentionally infecting sweetcorn crops—a very susceptible variety of corn.
Harvest it at the right time, sauté it with butter and onion, and blanket it with cheese in a tortilla, and the fungus transforms into an appetizing and protein-rich meal. Many people describe the soft, velvety fungus as having a smoky or earthy flavor resembling roasted corn. Some adventurous chefs have even blended, sieved and cooled the fungus into ice cream.
Huitlacoche, scientifically referred to as Ustilago maydis, emerged sporadically in most corn growing regions around the world beginning around a century ago. The fungus infects a corn plant either through the soil or silk. It then forms a silvery-blue, tumor-like mass of fungus, referred to as a gall, on the ear, stalk or in individual kernels.
“As the galls form they are a light gray color throughout. When the spores start to form, the internal gall tissue starts to darken,” said Darin Eastburn, a professor in the crop sciences department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The hyphae constitute the fungus, and eventually produce reproductive structures called spores.
“If left,” he said, “the hyphae will continue to convert into spores, and the inside of the gall will become a black powdery mass. This would not be good to eat.”
“Walnut size. That’s a good time to harvest and eat them,” said Mohammad Babadoost, professor in the crop sciences department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On the corn, however, the huitlacoche hardly looks appetizing.
Not only would the huitlacoche taste worse if harvested too late, the spores can burst from the gall and blow to surrounding corn fields in dry conditions, potentially infecting healthy corn plants.
The canned version of huitlacoche is relatively easy to obtain, but getting fresh fungus it slightly more difficult, as there are only a handful of farmers that cultivate huitlacoche in the U.S. “I need to have a permit from U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to send cultures of the fungus to another state,” said Eastburn.