What I Ate on My Summer Vacation: Huitlacoche
As I wrote nearly two years ago — ah, back when blogging was an occasional joy, not a daily slog to assault you with info and insults — fresh huitlacoche is almost impossible to find in restaurants, let alone purchase for home use. You can get good huitlacoche at Oyamel, but even the great José Andrés has to have his corn smut shipped from Florida. And it's likely frozen for transport.
I don't think I had ever tasted fresh huitlacoche until Carrie and I visited Chichen-Itza, smack dab in the middle of the Yucatan. We splurged and stayed at the Hacienda Chichen, this gorgeously landscaped resort that will remind you of sprawling Colonial manors and/or Mexican drug lords. The Hacienda has a killer restaurant on premise, under the direction of Mayan chef Josue Cime, who served us one of the best lunches of our vacation.
As an appetizer, I ordered the huitlacoche crepes pictured above. Cime ties the corn smut up in little beggar's purses, which he surrounds with crema, baby corn, and more of the black-as-oil huitlacoche. The first thing that struck me about the corn fungus was its appearance. It was a soggy mass, without shape or form, totally unrecognizable as maize or corn or any vegetable found in Mesoamerica. I wondered if the kitchen had picked out the pieces that still resembled kernels.
The waiter had warned me that the huitlacoche on the Yucatan would taste unlike anything I had eaten in the states. Well, they apparently taste unlike anything the great food chemist Harold McGee has tried either. In his landmark book, On Food and Cooking, McGee writes the following on huitlacoche:
[Fungus] infects various plant parts, including the kernels in the growing ear, and develops into irregular spongy masses or "galls" that are a combination of greatly enlarged plant cells, nutrient-absorbing fungal threads, and blue-black spores. Fully mature galls are dry, black spore bags. The optimum stage for harvest is two to three weeks after infection, when the galls on a single ear can weigh as much as a pound/500 gm and are about three-quarters black inside. When cooked, these immature galls develop a sweet, savory, woody flavor thanks to glucose, sotolon, and vanillin. [Emphasis mine.]
Cime's huitlacoche, by contrast, had a woody, earthy, and pronounced sour flavor, which the chef expertly balanced with the sweet crepes. In retrospect, I think it's possible the sourness might have been introduced during the cooking process, but regardless, the waiter was correct: This huitlacoche tasted unlike anything I had ever sampled before.
It was also so good that it took an act of religious kindness for me to share it with my wife.