This Creepy-Looking Fungus Infects Corn Kernels, Turning Them Into a Delicacy Used in Quesadillas and Other Foods

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This scary-looking fungus grows on corn kernels and makes them tasty. They are used in quesadillas and other foods.

American and Canadian cooks are just now learning what Mexicans have known for a long time: a blue fungus that grows on corn and is hated by most U.S. farmers is actually tasty. It has grown so big that scientists are now trying to figure out how to really make it bigger.

In July of last year, Sean Brock, an executive chef and restaurant owner from Charleston, found out from a nearby farmer that the unique Mexican variety of White Bolita corn that he had asked the farmer to grow had been infected with corn smut, a disease of plants caused by the pathogenic fungus Ustilago maydis. Brock wasn’t sad like the farmer thought he would be. In fact, though:

Image credit: David Cohen

He told NPR, “I love it when nature throws you a curveball, and it tastes like this.” “It tastes like black truffles and is incredibly tasty and luxurious.”

Brock was talking sense. The infected corn seeds that swell up and look like tumors are called “huitlacoche” in Mexico and have been a treat for a long time. They are often used as a filler in quesadillas and other foods made with tortillas, as well as in soups. You can even buy them fresh at fairs.

Quesadilla de Huitlacoche. Image credit: Kirk K

This is why Brock was so happy when he heard the bad (or good) news. In the past, families in Mexico would walk miles and miles through cornstalks just to get a bunch of ears that were infected with this cousin of mushrooms. Now, a whole field’s worth of them fell into his lap. He told the farmer to pick the corn smut by hand and bring it to Charleston, where he made tacos with it.

In Mexico, where corn is very important, the huitlacoche nut is highly valued not only for its taste but also for the extra nutrition it offers. Along with a lot of fiber and protein, it has a lot of lysine, an important amino acid that corn doesn’t have. For a full protein meal, eat corn and smut together. They grow in the same place.

In the US, however, only a small group of committed huitlacoche farmers have valued the strange-looking crop. Corn farmers and the government have spent millions of dollars trying to get rid of it by banning imports and breeding strains that are resistant to it.

One man’s blight is another man’s treasure. Image credit: nvr_fd_away

What’s bad for one person is good for another. Picture credit: nvr_fd_away

And while the tasty fungus crop has grown some north of Mexico over the past few decades, it is still very hard for people who want to grow it on purpose. Fresh huitlacoche is hard to find because the fungal attack is completely up to nature.

But there will be help soon. Mycologist Tradd Cotter has a 42,000-square-foot mushroom production plant at Mushroom Mountain Farm in Easley, S.C. He wants to make a pure liquid inoculum that farmers can buy, like how beer brewers buy yeast. Scientist Barry Saville is working on a similar project at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. He is using a liquid inoculum to infect different kinds of sweet corn grown in the area. So, soon there might be a way to make a lot of them.

Will huitlacoche ever be commercially viable in the US? We don’t know yet, but some scientists are working to make it happen. Image credit: bionicgrrrl

Will huitlacoche ever be able to make money in the US? Scientists are trying hard to find out, but we don’t know yet. BionicGrrrl took the picture.
Chef Brock asked a farmer named Nat Bradford to help bring huitlacoche to the US. He hopes that this is also the time for it. He told NPR, “Next year I’ll make sure Chef Sean Brock has everything he wants.” In fact, Bradford has some very big plans. Along with White Bolita, he wants to bring in other Mexican corn strains and, with Tradd Cotter’s help, spread his whole crop next year.

An old Russian proverb says, “A lucky person can find a treasure, but an unlucky person can’t even find a mushroom.”

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