Ask Tim: The Inside Cuitlatl on Huitlacoche
This week’s question comes from Omari Wheat from the District, who wants to know:
“I was wondering if you know where I can get fresh huitlacoche in the D.C. area. Are there any stores, farmers markets, back yards, anywhere? I can find the stuff in a can, but it is obviously not as good as fresh. I know there are a few restaurants in the area that
offer it, but I want to be able to cook it myself.”
For the uninitiated, huitlacoche comes from ears of corn infected with a parasitic fungus, which swells the kernels to 10 times their normal size. Huitlacoche has been an ingredient in Mesoamerica cuisine long before Columbus hauled his ass over here looking for…well, anything but black, bloated corn fungus. Aztecs apparently used the kernels in their cooking; they even named them: According to the Food Lover’s Companion, “cuitlatl means ‘excrement,’ cochi means ‘black’” in the Nahuatl language. Modern restaurants, of course, tend to shy away from calling their huitlacoche dishes “black shit.” They have adopted more creative terms, such as Mexican “black mushrooms” or Mexican “black truffles.”
None of which helps Omari get his fresh huitlacoche. I contacted José Andrés’ THINKfoodGROUP, which serves up the corn fungus at both Cafe Atlantico and Oyamel. Laura Trevino, THINK’s director of communications and Andrés’ special assistant, e-mailed back with the bad news:
“I asked Joe Raffa (chef at Oyamel) and some of the other chefs. No one sells fresh huitlacoche in D.C. that they know of. They buy from a farmer in Florida. It is possible to find canned huitlacoche at Latin markets but the quality is not the same. An opportunity for some small gourmet market.”
I e-mailed Trevino back to see if THINK would share the contact info of its Florida farmer, but so far, I haven’t heard a peep. I suspect, like many restaurateurs, Andrés doesn’t want to reveal his sources. So I contacted James Muir, regional executive chef at Rosa Mexicano in Penn Quarter, which also features huitlacoche on its menu. Muir, unfortunately, had the same bad news: You can’t buy the stuff fresh in D.C.
But Muir is not as down on canned huitlacoche as the THINKfoodGROUP is. Muir uses the stuff at his own restaurant. He says you can buy canned huitlacoche at La Villa Food Distributors on 1265 4th Street NE (phone: 202-543-9677; hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturady). La Villa sells it for $79 for a 12-can case. Individual cans run $6.58. Maybe the stuff at La Villa is better than the cans at those markets you’ve visited, Omari? Maybe it’s the same? I don’t know.
Price is likely the reason you don’t find much fresh huitlacoche. If the can version costs $79 for a case, Muir says that the same amount of frozen huitlacoche runs closer to $200. The fresh stuff, he adds, is even pricier. Short of buying white or black truffles, I don’t know how many people are willing to shell out that kind of cash for fungus.