As the Aztecs expanded their vast empire in the Valley of Mexico in the 14th to 16th centuries, one of the biggest questions they faced was how to feed their millions of tax-paying subjects. The answer eventually came in irrigated terrace systems and chinampas, or man-made islands, which yielded enough food to sustain the growing population. These advanced agricultural practices were the foundation of a varied diet that included tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, and, of course, maize — the sacred crop in Aztec mythology. But like most civilizations, the Aztecs came across unexpected challenges during their agricultural revolution, which required them to adapt. One of these discoveries was huitlacoche.
Also known as cuitlacoche, huitlacoche is a sporous fungus that feeds off corn before its ears fully develop. The contagion is usually brought forth by annual rainy seasons and results in bulbous, blue-gray growths that deform maize kernels into Frankenstein-esque galls. Its flavor can be characterized as deeply earthy, but not in the cliche sense in which most fungi are often described. This ingredient has a wonderful smokiness to it, with subtle notes of sweetness coming from the corn’s sugars. Its flavor profile lingers between the nuttiness of black truffle and the savoriness of morels. Its texture, when cooked, is a soft chew that forms from the corn’s soluble fibers. It’s also very similar to the mushrooms many cooks love in their risottos, stews, and burgers.
Today, huitlacoche is a delicacy in Mexico and can be found everywhere, from food stands to open-air markets to Michelin-starred restaurants. Due to its seasonality and short harvesting period, fresh huitlacoche is a prized find for the average Mexican shopper and an exciting occurrence for corn farmers throughout the country. Like in Aztec times, a natural bout of huitlacoche symbolizes bounty: delicious food, higher profits, and a successful harvesting season. Anyone who fails to get their hands on the fresh fungus at a local market can still find it canned or jarred in major supermarkets year-round. Common uses include creamy sauces, omelets, tamales, or even just in a tortilla for a vegetarian taco packed with umami flavor. Street food vendors throughout Mexico City commonly sell huitlacoche quesadillas made with fresh blue corn tortillas. The cheese of choice is stringy quesillo, and customers are given the option of either red or green salsa for an extra kick.
But outside of Mexico, particularly in the neighboring United States, huitlacoche is disappointingly rare — the general absence of huitlacoche on menus here suggests just how bad a rap this funky ingredient has. Its nicknames are an indicator of its troubled public image: Food bloggers often refer to it as the Mexican “truffle,” a Eurocentric attempt to normalize the Indigenous ingredient to unfamiliar audiences. And then there’s the less-flattering, if not overtly disparaging, “corn smut” label that American farmers use for this so-called fungal disease. Still, a fungus is a fungus, and multiple variations of these primitive organisms are enjoyed in cuisines worldwide. So what is it about Ustilago maydis that makes it so different from coveted chanterelles, maitakes, or pricey truffles? Like other ingredients with Indigenous roots, huitlacoche’s present-day reputation is a byproduct of European colonization and the adoption of certain Mesoamerican crops versus others. And it’s a reminder of how branding certain ingredients as exotic or even adventurous can ultimately minimize a culture’s culinary heritage.
Growing up Mexican American in a predominantly white Phoenix suburb, I was occasionally asked what “real” Mexican food was like; I often struggled with answering. After all, how could I possibly encapsulate the cuisines of 32 states, seven regions, and dozens of Indigenous communities into a quick, two-sentence overview? My response was usually some fumbled spiel where I name-dropped dishes like sopes, chilaquiles, and, of course, mole — although that sometimes failed to register too. It never occurred to me to mention something as unique as huitlacoche for various reasons. I figured corn fungus would naturally sound unappealing to my audience, and only discourage them from exploring Mexican food further. I wanted to find a middle ground or safe space for having cultural exchanges, which meant sticking to the status quo: tortillas, beans, salsa, and cheese in every variation or combination humanly possible. In other words, sharing my culinary heritage with others came with self-imposed limitations.
As I constructed my first-generation identity, I also realized how much pop culture has influenced the way others perceive Mexican food. Years of gooey nacho cheese, packets of taco seasoning, and talking Chihuahuas selling Taco Bell had seemingly established what Mexican food was to mainstream American audiences. At the grocery store, that often meant meandering through the “ethnic” aisles filled with canned refried beans, taco shells, and a vast array of salsas for every chip, bowl, and Sunday night football party. This was, at least from where I was looking, what Mexican food was to America.
Certain cultural assumptions and other barriers have likely kept huitlacoche off U.S. grocery shelves. For example, merely searching the fungus on Google will churn out results labeling it as an “invasive” disease, a “blight” or an undesirable “infection,” rather than just a food item. Huitlacoche’s blue-grey-black appearance arguably does not appeal to the American eye. Paired with its classification as a fungus and its description as a “disease,” consumers might quickly assume it’s inedible.
How might a Mexican ingredient like huitlacoche finally break through and become part of America’s food vocabulary? Like with most foreign food trends, the popularization of Mexican foods typically begins with a so-called discovery by the white traveler. With the proliferation of the Internet came an interest in discovering “underrated” travel destinations within Mexico, making spots like Tulum, Oaxaca, and Mexico City new competitors for the often-saturated Cancún. Meanwhile, influential food and television personalities also shine a light on these “exotic” ingredients — whether it’s Andrew Zimmern eating ant eggs, aka escamoles, in Mexico City or René Redzepi Instagramming layers of raw cecina in Oaxaca. The tourism boom and food-world influencers together surface Mexican ingredients, which then make their way into American restaurants, bars, and sometimes even grocery stores. But this path is a troubled one, and often does a disservice to Mexican cuisine in the process.
Consider Oaxacan mezcal. The traditional spirit has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, with a report by Future Market Insights predicting that by 2022, $840 million worth of mezcal will be consumed worldwide. Similar to the mass expansion of its cousin, tequila, mezcal can credit its newfound fame to American tourism, lessened distribution restrictions, and bartenders who wanted to experiment with a lesser-known spirit. Its artisanal distilling process gave it a seal of approval from health-conscious crowds who typically stay clear of additives, but its moment in the spotlight also comes with risks. Like tequila, mezcal’s increased production contributes to the overharvesting of blue agave, a rise in the plant’s prices which negatively impacts small-scale distillers, and the industrialization of Oaxacan heritage that could lessen the quality of its regional spirit. All of this comes before considering how such an increase in demand can encourage the exploitation of Mexican farmers for the sake of fueling a billion-dollar industry.
Other specialty ingredients or dishes, while not as ubiquitous as tequila, still face the risk of cultural mistranslation. Chapulines, or fried grasshoppers, have been commonly eaten in Oaxaca and central Mexico for centuries. After the initial shock factor, tourists eventually saw them as a novelty item or photo op — now they can be found in Oaxacan restaurants in major American cities or even at Mariners games if you’re in the Seattle area. Other foods like cow’s tongue, goat meat, pulque, and escamoles were received by American travelers with equal curiosity, fear, and mysticism. And that is where the issues arise.
Treating certain Mexican foods as foreign novelties that exist outside of the norm promotes stereotypes that Mexican ingredients are primitive foods eaten by a primitive people. It paints the consumption of Indigenous foods as a gimmicky experience that is fodder for America’s food television, celebrity endorsements, and white diners’ street cred. And it makes expanding diners’ interest in and knowledge of Mexican cuisine harder.
Some American farmers are finally realizing that huitlacoche is worth purposefully growing.
The average price of fresh huitlacoche in the United States typically runs close to $15 to $20 per pound, significantly higher than fresh corn, which sells for about $5 a bundle. But in the U.S., farmers have long considered corn fungus to be a nuisance that wreaks havoc on their yields and clogs up harvesting equipment. The USDA devoted years of research to eradicating huitlacoche through fungicides and hybrid corn species that are resistant to its spores. But that didn’t deter farmer Roy Burns.
Burns has been harvesting his own huitlacoche at Burns Farms in Groveland, Florida, since 1993. “It’s been a slow and steady increase in demand, but I’m now selling huitlacoche to restaurants and distributors in every state. Except for Missouri, I don’t think I sell in Missouri,” he says. “It seems like growing huitlacoche isn’t a big deal anymore. You can grow it anywhere, but growing it in Iowa might be more controversial than down here in Florida. I also think that a lot of corn farmers aren’t even sure what it is when they first see it.”
To generate the yields he needs, Burns grows corn specifically to inoculate it. Once the huitlacoche is harvested, Burns removes the fungus from the ear before the galls are frozen, packaged, and shipped off to distributors like Oregon Mushrooms in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Founded by Christina and Scott Cossairt, Oregon Mushrooms distributes various fungi to wholesalers, restaurants, and home cooks across the country.
“We’ve been selling huitlacoche for the past 10 years, and it usually sells out very quickly,” says Christina Cossairt. “I just think most people don’t know that they can get it or where they can get it. But one new trend that I have noticed is an influx of home chefs ordering huitlacoche.”
Perhaps I didn’t mention huitlacoche when discussing Mexican food with friends growing up because I didn’t eat it much as a child. It isn’t commonly found in my mother’s native Sonora, a largely dry and arid region known for its cattle industry. And if we had it at home, which was near to never, it always came as a canned mushy substance that lacked what I’d come to know as huitlacoche’s nuanced flavors. Later on, during my first few visits to Mexico City, I fell for the cheesy and colorful huitlacoche quesadillas, sold by vendors who roll fresh tortillas from piles of blue masa in a matter of seconds. Topped with stringy quesillo, this deep, almost black huitlacoche stew filling was light years away from the canned huitlacoche quesadillas we ate over the stovetop at home.
I now live in Los Angeles, where, four months ago I found myself eating a remarkable blue corn huitlacoche quesadilla from a stand in a bank’s parking lot in Echo Park. Simply titled Oaxacan Quesadilla Cart, the stand has over the course of its 15-plus years in operation built a cult following for its proprietor Alejandra’s homemade huitlacoche filling, cooked with plenty of onions and epazote, a leafy herb with similar notes to anise and tarragon. Her process is pure muscle memory as she dips her hands in oil and works the blue dough into oblong shapes on a hot grill. She then sprinkles shredded Oaxacan cheese on the cooked dough and asks you for your filling of choice.
“My clientele is a mixture of American and Latin people, but Americans specifically come to order huitlacoche,” she says. “Huitlacoche is actually my bestseller, and I’ve seen a rise in popularity throughout the years.”
While Alejandra’s quesadillas are an example of the beautiful, familiar simplicity of huitlacoche, Enrique Olvera’s cooking shifted my perception of the ingredient — making me realize it could be so much more than just a delicious street food. In 2019, I ate at his world-renowned Mexico City restaurant Pujol, where he offered a corn-based tasting menu that included a delicately cooked pile of huitlacoche covered in truffle shavings and served with a toasted blue corn tortilla. At first glance, it seemed like it was a Michelin-worthy take on the same huitlacoche stew I’d known from vendors like Alejandra. But when I tasted it, I realized that the truffle’s natural woodiness emphasized the huitlacoche’s earthy flavors, the two fungi highlighting everything that made them so different from each other and yet astonishingly similar. It was at that moment that I realized huitlacoche’s true potential, but also how much it had been overlooked on restaurant menus back home.
Sure, there are some Mexican restaurants in the U.S. that use huitlacoche, but I’m left wondering about the possibilities. Huitlacoche could enhance creamy risottos, complex soups, or even the delicate sauces that get ladled onto cuts of meat — if only chefs and diners could consider it for exactly what it is: food. Huitlacoche contains high levels of protein, unsaturated fats, and an amino acid known as lysine that strengthens immune systems and bones. It’s a great meat substitute, nutritious addition to any plant-based diet, and a rare biological occurrence. It also deserves to be studied, understood, and respected as an ingredient rather than dismissed as a disease or othered as a mere “exotic” curiosity.
Approaching Mexico’s food as, simply, food and not a novelty could change biases in America, while simultaneously creating a place for more Indigenous ingredients in our produce sections. Because if we’re missing out on huitlacoche, surely we are missing out on so many other Indigenous ingredients that haven’t received their time in the spotlight. Why are we collectively sleeping on so much of Mexico’s culinary traditions? And, really, what’s so scary about some blue corn fungus?
Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles