Huitlacoche looks like an ear of corn that fell into a vat of mysterious laboratory chemicals, and emerged snarling and ready to fight a comic book hero. It is caused by Ustilago maydis, which is one of a number of fungi in the Ustilago genus that infects grasses (raise your hand if you knew that corn is a grass). These fungi reproduce by converting the tissue of a host plant into a vehicle for spore production. The lumpy, misshapen kernels of Huitlacoche are part-corn, part-mushroom, and 100% delicious. Like a cross between sweet corn and savory morels, Huitlacoche has a decadent richness, tempered by earthy, smoky notes.

It must have taken quite a leap of faith for the first person to try this gruesome aberration that ravages the most essential and sacred of New World food crops. The early Aztecs, Tlaxcalans, and Central Mexicans had a good sense of humor, when they gave Huitlacoche a name that translates to “excrement of the gods.” In the United States, “Corn Smut” is still largely an enemy of the corn farmer – a ruinous blight to be quarantined and destroyed. Or perhaps furtively harvested, kept in the back of the Farmer’s Market stall under burlap, and offered only by request, like a mystical artifact with dangerous powers.

This is far from the case in Central America, where it still symbolizes what it did to the Aztecs: a blessing that ensures higher profits, more nutrition, and a delicious meal. During its short growing season, you can find Huitlacoche everywhere there, from street food trucks to Michelin star restaurants. Sometimes you can even find Huitlacoche ice cream! Because the spores continue to mature even after it is picked, Huitlacoche has a relatively short shelf life. Unless you get lucky at a Farmer’s Market and find someone peddling the fresh stuff, you are most likely to find Huitlacoche canned or frozen. A personal recommendation is not to bother with canned Huitlacoche, which tends to be mushy and bland. Frozen, however, it retains many of its original attributes.     

The most traditional way to prepare Huitlacoche in Mexico is to start by sautéing onions. When they are aromatic and translucent, add the Huitlacoche and stir gently. It does not need to cook for long. You may feel as if you are cooking with squid ink, as the mushrooms release inky black liquid into the pan. There are many ways to get creative with Huitlacoche, and because of their savory umami flavor and high protein content, they make good substitutes for meat in tamales, tacos, pupusas, and burritos. They are not limited to Central and South American cuisine, however. They make an incredible ravioli filling! The most classic, rustic, home-cooked recipe for Huitlacoche is to simmer it with onions, garlic, jalapenos and tomatoes, and eat it with warm tortillas and Oaxacan cheese.