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Beauty in disguise: Huitlacoche

From being called the “devil’s corn” by US farmers to Mexican truffle, huitlacoche (pronounced whee-tla-KOH-cheh) is a traditional Mexican ingredient with many names. This deformed, dark coloured and diseased-looked food is actually a nutritious by-product of a plant disease. The fungus infects ears of corn and transforms the kernels into something misshapen, grey yet delicious. The smut formed is considered as a scourge by most farmers in America, just one discoloured kernel typically renders an ear completely unsellable. But one man's blight is another man's treasure. In Mexico, it’s long been a delicacy. Traditionally, families would walk miles among the cornstalks just to gather the fungi.

To this day, huitlacoche is still a staple in Mexican cuisine that is often added to quesadillas, used as a side dish, or used as a topping in other Mexican dishes. And in recent years, the fungus has been introduced into the luxury restaurants with notable success. Its similarities to the earthy flavour and texture of mushrooms and unique organoleptic characteristic has made it a big hit among international chefs. Many gourmet chefs in America have been incorporating the “mushrooms” into their haute menu.

Outside the kitchen, huitlacoche is used for scientific and medical purposes. In many Native American tribes, it has been used medicinally as a labour inducer, though much of its medicinal reputation is unfound. Corn smut, another name for huitlacoche, is a prime model for studying growth of microorganisms like yeast and experimenting genetic modification.

Putting the fungus’s fame in the culinary world aside, the nutritional level of the ingredient itself is enough to earn our attention. When the fungus does its magic with the corn’s metabolic patterns, the corn actually becomes healthier for our consumption. Huitlacoche has a rich source of protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and lysine. According to a study in 2017, its average protein content is 12% per ear, which is similar to spinach (around 11% per cup cooked). Lysine is an amino acid that promotes healthier and stronger bones and boosts the body’s immune system. Adding huitlacoche into your diet will also ensure you obtain the beta-glucans, a type of soluble dietary fibre which is instrumental in decreasing cholesterol.

Huitlacoche is sold fresh or canned. Unfortunately, neither of the options are available in most supermarkets or small grocery stores in Hong Kong. However, you can still order cans of them online , visit the following restaurant and shop to get a taste of this magical ingredient.

Mexgrocer HK

Mexgrocer is an specialty shop providing authentic Mexican food, ingredients and traditional Mexican items.We stock items not easily found in Hong Kong

Address: 1/F Cheong Tai Industrial Building, 16 Tai Yau Street, San Po Kong, Kowloon

Contact: +852 6312 7441

Verde MAR offers a wide range of authentic Mexican and Latino cuisine, from tacos of all sorts to chimichanga. The Mexican Truffle Salad is a dish which mixes huitlacoche with other mushrooms and seasons them with olive oil and parsley. The crunchiness and sourness make the dish perfect for the hot summer and it’s totally vegetarian!!

Address:24 Tai Wong Street East, Wan chai

Contact: +852 2810 0888

If you are lucky to get your hands on fresh huitlacoche, keep it simple. Just sauté the ingredient with some sliced onion, chilli and garlic, and season them with some salt and epasote. However if you are up for something more challenging and cheesy, the following recipe is perfect for you! Next time when you are throwing a dinner party, you can serve your friends and family this ear splitting and nutritional dish!

Huitlacoche Quesadillas [Serves 4]

1 shallot, finely minced

2 cloves of garlic, minced

4 tablespoons of butter

1 cup of fresh corn

1/2 lb of Huitlacoche (canned or fresh)

1 cup of shredded gruyere or any other white cheese that melts well

Salt to taste

8 corn tortillas

Step 1

Melt butter in a pan and sauté shallots, garlic until fragrant.

Step 2

Add the corn and huitlacoche and cook until the huitlacoche releases all its black ink and it is fragrant. Season and set aside. Keep warm.

Step 3

Turn the heat to medium. Heat up the tortilla in the pan. After a few seconds, add a handfull of cheese and the huitlacoche filling.

Step 4

Fold the tortilla in half. Flip the quesadilla after one minute or until it crisps up and all the cheese is melted.

Step 5

Serve hot with a side of salsa or dip of your choice

By Wing Leung

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