Huitlacoche, the Aztec caviar

Although it was once considered an annoying pest that attacked corn crops and was mercilessly exterminated, today the Mexican huitlacoche (or cuitlacoche) is considered a delicacy in countries like the United States, Germany and France, where it is called the Aztec caviar or the Mexican truffle because of its intensely smoky flavor, a mixture of shiitake mushrooms and black truffles.

The word cuitlacoche comes from the words nahuas cuitlatl, excrement, and cochi, to sleep. Use: Edible. Photo: Álvaro Infante.
The word cuitlacoche comes from the words nahuas cuitlatl, excrement, and cochi, to sleep. Use: Edible. Photo: Álvaro Infante.

Foods can be traditional for two reasons: because of their antiquity or because they are associated with elements of a particular culture; thus, for Mexico, the guajolote is a traditional food because its domestication and use is thousands of years old and, on the other hand, the guajolote en mole is also traditional because of the use of elements of Mesoamerican cuisine, such as chili, cocoa and the bird itself, as part of a 17th century Novohispano stew.

The cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis) is currently the mushroom most linked to the Mexican culinary tradition. In the rainy months we look for the corn covered by this organism in the markets, partly to ensure that it is fresh food, but also because of the image where corn, mushrooms and corn melt.

But in front of this reality we have another: as this mushroom does not have hard parts there is no archaeological data that suggests its use in Mesoamerica and there is nothing in the iconographic aspect. Bernardino de Sahagún (16th century), Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, where it finally appears but not as food, but as something called cujtlacochi, which is described as a dirt that grows on top of corn. This leads to the conclusion that in pre-Hispanic times it was not consumed and was only seen as an undesirable condition of the cornfields, so the question is inevitable: how did this fungus become a traditional Mexican food?

To solve this unknown, let's go back to the triad milpa-maiz-cuitlacoche and see it from an evolutionary perspective. Let's remember that corn (Zea mays) is a domestic plant whose wild ancestor is a macollo called "teosinte" (Zea perennis). The process resulted in tall, single-stemmed plants and, above all, a larger and larger ear, from one with few grains to the current cobs.

The mushroom cuitlacoche transforms the corn grains into sori. Use: Edible. Photo: Álvaro Infante.
The mushroom cuitlacoche transforms the corn grains into sori. Use: Edible. Photo: Álvaro Infante.

This process benefited man and another character. Grasses are regularly parasitized by fungi of the genus Ustilago, recognizable only when the spike loses its consistency and is transformed into black powder, like ash, which are the spores. In the case of the cuitlacoche, when it invades the future ear it alters its development and transforms the grains of the corn into bodies called soros, which when they grow become sacs and when they mature they break and release something like mud, the spores. The set of soros is what we recognize as cuitlacoche and its dimensions are the result of the amount of food available, so we can ensure that the evolution of the corn spike and the size of the fungus were simultaneous, and so people faced this peculiarity or, rather, discomfort, because it was a part of lost food.

Apparently, this condition was common throughout the pre-Hispanic period. So at what time did Ustilago maydis cease to be a nuisance and become food? In the traditional cornfields numerous organisms coexist, some cultivated or bred and others that occupy this area, and it is man who decides what he uses and how. Perhaps in critical moments the most humble indigenous peasants consumed the cuitlacoche, but only they and without being part of their food tradition. But as time passed, especially within the social crisis that Mexico experienced in the nineteenth century, there was no limit to the need to look for food, whatever it was, so this humble mushroom gradually spread in its employment, but always linked to poverty and indigenous status, therefore absolutely marginalized from the dishes of any other social or economic group.

DIETARY

Compared to other species of mushrooms, it has a very low-fat content.

51%

From the total area harvested in Mexico occupied by corn, where Ustiligo Maydis grows.

RECIPE

Ingredients

600 gr clean huitlacoche, coarsely chopped

4 (500 gr) poblano chiles, roasted, skin and seeds removed, cut into thin slices

2 (30 ml) cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped

3 branches of epazote

100 g fresh cheese, sliced

Corn tortillas

Salt

Preparation

-Heat the chosen oil and fry the onion, garlic and poblano slices.

-Add mushrooms, cover and keep low heat for 10 minutes or until mushrooms are tender, but not soft or disrupted. Finally, add the epazote and season.

-Before serving, remove the epazote sticks, accompany the slices of cheese and hot tortillas.

By Mexicanist

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