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Huitlacoche – Trying a food that scared me

Growing up, I knew huitlacoche as “corn smut”. It’s a fungus that grows out of corn. And I was terrified of it. It looked like zombie cobs of corn were invading the garden. Looking back now, I can see how my fears around corn smut were an early hint of the compulsive patterns I would evolve into OCD years later. Back then, I couldn’t touch anything that might have come into contact with the fungus. What if it started growing out of me?! 

Cob of corn with the fungus known as corn smut growing from the kernels, turning them from small yellow kernels into large white, bulbous, masses.
Huitlacoche in action. Or as I knew it growing up: corn smut. Photo from Shutterstock.

I hadn’t thought about corn smut in years, but when I arrived in Oaxaca this past winter, I kept noticing a menu item that was nearly as common as the ubiquitous crickets: huitlacoche. It’s a Nahuatl word and, me being super excited to explore traditional foods, I typed the word into Google image search, hoping for a special kind of chocolate or deep fried crickets, and right away: corn smut all over my phone.

I knew I had to take my inner child (who was terrified of corn smut) to eat some huitlacoche while we were in town.

On a wood table, three tacos filled with huitlacoche (corn smut)
Huitlacoche tacos. Just think of them as corn mushrooms. Photo from Shutterstock.

Huitlacoche is created by the pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis, and actually transforms the nutritional quality of corn, increasing protein, magnesium, and calcium content. So it’s not zombie corn, it’s bonus corn! Researchers have even been exploring how to use the unique properties of huitlacoche to transport vaccines: “The Corn Smut (‘Huitlacoche’) as a New Platform for Oral Vaccines”  

There’s a delicious vegan restaurant in Oaxaca called Hierba Dulce, which makes all of its food from scratch. It has a beautiful courtyard in an old building painted white and yellow, with a mosaic Virgin Mary gazing over a fountain, and tall cactuses standing watch over wood tables. I wasn’t planning to eat huitlacoche but when I saw it on the menu, I noticed some hesitation in me. So I ordered memelas topped with huitlacoche.

In terms of texture and taste, it’s the same as any mushroom. If you like mushrooms, you’ll like huitlacoche. You’re getting a mushroom with the combined nutritional value of corn. All of those years as a kid when we would cut down the stalks with corn smut and burn them… we could’ve been making tacos!

If you put mushrooms on pizza, you can put huitlacoche on memelas. At vegan restaurant, Hierba Dulce, Oaxaca, Mexico.

1 thought on “Huitlacoche – Trying a food that scared me”

  1. Pingback: The joys of Oaxaca's take-out food scene • The Mindful Field Guide

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