Can You Say Huitlacoche?

The kingdom of the fungi is large, wide, and diverse, but as mycophagists our view of the fungi is very narrow and limited. Our concept of the fungi often ends with a few fleshy Basidiomycetes (agarics, boletes, puff balls) or even fewer Ascomycetes (morels and truffles). There are many other groups of fungi of scientific or economic interest but of little culinary value. Within the group of fungi called the Basidiomycetes (because spores are formed on structures called basidia) are two groups of fungi of great economic importance: the rusts and smuts.

The smuts (Ustilaginales) are distant relatives of our beloved Boletus and Agaricus. These fungi are called smuts because they form black dusty spore masses that resemble soot or smut. Over 1,000 species of smut fungi are known. All are parasitic on angiosperms (flowering plants) with over 75 families of angiosperms being infected. The rusts (Uredinales) are an even larger grouping of plant parasites, with over 4,000 known species. With over 5,000 species of rusts and smuts the only the corn smut (Ustilago maydis) is commonly eaten as food.

Growing on corn, Ustilago maydis forms large, swollen, kernel-like globules with soft black flesh covered by a silvery gray skin. Huitlacoche (pronounced wee-tlah-KOH-cheh) is the Nahuatl word for this fungus. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs and Huitlacoche has undoubtedly been eaten in central Mexico since before the times of the Aztecs.

You will probably never see fresh Huitlacoche sold outside of Mexico, but you can often find it canned in local Mexican markets. Even canned it is delicious, with an inky, mushroomy flavor that is hard to describe but easy to experience in this wonderful soup.

Huitlacoche Soup

Recipe from Ellen and Tom Duffy

In damp weather corn frequently becomes infected with corn smut--Ustilago maydis--which when fresh occurs as pearly gray globules and ovoids displacing the rows of kernels. They should not be used when old and dried and powdery. At this time the black interior is widely exposed and the gleaming surface gone. It may cause uterine contractions in pregnant women when old and decayed. It is considered a great delicacy in parts of Mexico and here is a soup we have developed. It is delicious with a slight gray color. (There are black spores in the fresh globules also.)

A.

B.

Whirl together all ingredients in group "A" in a blender or food processor until mixed. Cook slowly, stirring until white sauce thickens. Chop finely all solid ingredients in group "B" and sauté until tender--add the Huitlacoche last as it cooks a little quicker. Whirl in blender or food processor with the chicken broth, add to the cream sauce, heat and enjoy.

Variations:

  1. Substitute PickaPeppa sauce for the Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces.
  2. Add 2 Tablespoons of chopped green chilies to group "B".

Notes on Huitlacoche

Corn smut must be becoming popular! The week that last months Mycophagist article on Ustilago maydis was in the mail Narsai David devoted one of his short programs about it on radio station KCBS. He mentioned that some farmers in the United States are attempting to grow corn with large corn smut infestations because the fungus is much more valuable than the corn it parasitizes!

In a note from Larry Stickney, he mentioned that he has seen Huitlacoche infested corn at the Monterey Market in Berkeley. Being sold at corn prices, not fungus prices--quite a find for the initiated! Larry also mentioned that there is another edible smut, Ustilago esculenta, which grows on rice and is considered a great taste treat in central China, where it is sold in the markets. According to Professor Mo-Mei Chen, it grows more on the plant stalk than the seed itself and is sweet and tender.