Monday, 5 August 2013

Corn Smut, Cuitlacoche or Mexican Truffle, is there a difference?

Courtesy of Stu Spivak, wikimedia commons

On August 9th the world will celebrate the United Nations International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. I am celebrating early and paying my deep respects to the foods Indigenous farmers developed. One of those foods is a fungus called Cuitlacoche. 

If you have eaten in Mexico, you may have tried this tasty fungus creeping out of the ears of corn. Cuitlacoche (Ustilago maydis), is pronounced cuitla-KO-che or Huitlacoche (with a silent H). The Spanish name Cuitacoche is adapted from a Nahuatl name and my internet searches tell me the closest literal English translation for this word might be something like "Sleeping/Hibernating Dirt/Excrement". 

What's in a name?  

One reason why this Nahuatl name is important is because it tells us about this fungus's cultural roots. Nahuatl is the language of Nahua peoples (also known as Aztec people) whose speakers reside mainly in communities of Central Mexico.The Nahua were likely one of the first peoples to describe the fungus Cuitlacoche. 

I must disclose, the first time I tried Cuitlacoche was in Washington D.C., not in Mexico. Like many big cities, the D.C. foodscape is diverse and finding a Cuitlacoche quesadilla was surprisingly easy. All I had to do was take a trip to Adams Morgan and there I was quickly drawn into a quaint Mexican restaurant adorned with beautiful posters of Puebla and Pozole. When I saw Cuitlacoche quesadillas on the menu, I took the plunge. While explaining that Cuitlacoche has a strong flavour, the owner politely tried to sway my decision to the tacos or the tortas mexicanas. I insisted on the Cuitlacoche. 


Courtesy of Cuauhtemoc Ramirez, wikimedia commons 

I had a tecate and talked to the owner about Colima, a small state in Mexico where I lived about 10 years ago. Shortly into our conversation, I was presented with Cuitlacoche fungus in between two handmade corn tortillas. If I didn't look close enough I could have mistaken it for black refried beans. Upon close inspection I noticed tiny yellow corn kernels mixed into a dark purple mash called Cuitlacoche. 

I loved it, it had a hearty, earthy taste, it was not too overpowering, and it went surprisingly well with salsa and guacamole. 

As I ate, I wondered if my Cuitlacoche was grown locally or was shipped from Mexico. Although it may come as a surprise, Cuitlacoche is grown in the U.S. by many farmers, but not on purpose. Cuitlachoche in the U.S. is considered a disease called Corn Smut. Because Corn Smut is a U.S. pest, non-Indigenous farmers there spend their time thinking about killing, not cooking, this fungus. I felt safe to say the fungus on my plate in Washington D.C. was imported.


Cuitlacoche in a Oaxaca supermarket, wikimedia commons

Out of curiosity, I asked the owner where he gets his Cuitlacoche. "You can get anything in D.C.", he answered, looking shocked that I didn't know this fact. In Mexico, I had seen this fungus sold fresh, but he told me in D.C. it comes packaged, conveniently, in a can. This explains why you can order Cuitlacoche in many places and in many different dishes, including soups, crepes, and even fondues. 

As foodies transform Indigenous food recipes, their food names can change. Food enthusiasts are looking for an English name, beyond Corn Smut, to describe Cuitlacoche. Mexican Truffle and Aztec Caviar have been suggested. I agree with foodies that the name Corn Smut does not sound appetizing, but what is wrong with the Nahuatl name? Why are we searching for names that detach foods from their Indigenous roots? 

My vote is to keep the name Cuitlacoche. When Cuitlacoche becomes the Mexican Truffle we lose track of this fungus's history. The name Cuitlacoche links us to a people and a rich history of food tradtions. The name Mexican Truffle, like the label "Mexican Cuisine", tells us nothing about the diversity of foods and peoples within a region. The name Aztec Caviar is more culturally-descriptive. But the name Aztec Caviar still removes the Nahualt lanuage from the picture. 

There is something to be said for using an Indigenous word when ordering a food. When I ask for a Cuitlacoche quesadilla I articulate diversity using different sounds. When I hear these unique sounds, like "cui" or "tla", I am eager to learn the stories behind them. When I ask for Aztec Caviar, I can easily mistake this name for a quirky English label and not give a second thought to its first farmers

When I eat, whether in a city or around a fire far from urban life, I remember Indigenous farmers. I remember the foods their ancestors developed and I respect the foods Indigenous farmers produce for us today. Without Indigenous peoples, none of us new-age foodies know about Cuitlacoche. Let's celebrate the World's Indigenous Peoples and call Indigenous foods by their first names. 
______

Does anyone have a story about the Nahuatl word Cuitlacoche or about how this fungus is prepared by Nahua and other Indigenous peoples? If so, please share it in the comments section below. 


3 comments:

  1. Hi
    In México we use the Huitlacoche in lot of different dishes, all of them with pre-hispanic roots, in almost any street you can find "quesadillas" basically its a hand made tortilla with cheese with some extra ingredients, could be huitlacoche, chicharon (pork fried skin), mushrooms, chicken breast, meat, and of curse a spicy sausage with red or green chiles.
    Other use of it is mixed and fried with scrambled eggs, or as a side dish for a great piece of meat.
    In some of the towns and cities on the coast you can find great meals with fish and huitlacoche, almost all recipes are based on indigenous culture, some have mixed with spanish or french cuisine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the information about Huitlacoche, it is great to hear this food is so popular. And, your descriptions are making me hungry! While I was in Colima, Mexico, I did not have a chance to try it. I'll have to go back.

    Thanks for reading,
    Olivia

    ReplyDelete
  3. I grow and distribute huitlacoche frozen from my farm in florida...in anyone has an interest reply to branden at burnsfarm.huitlacoche@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete