Friday, April 2, 2010

Maize smut fungus: turning a disease into food

By Don Lotter, Ph.D.

One of the common "diseases" of maize in humid areas like Arusha is a fungus known as corn (maize) smut. When we harvested our maize in January I was surprised at the number of maize ears that were infected with the fungus - the most I've ever seen in a crop. The fungus appears quite ugly and the Africans discard it. The word "smut", now used for pornography, originated from different forms of this fungus, Ustilago, that infect the grass family.

However, the native peoples of Mexico and Central America, the very people who domesticated and gave us maize, consider maize smut a culinary delicacy, known as huitlacoche (pronounced weetlakochey).

A rule of mine that I have stood by for decades is that whenever a native people have a food that is unknown to Westerners but have been eating it for likely over a thousand years - I usually try it. I consider this kind of cultural "screening" to be more reliable than scientific research on new foods - too many of the potential new "foods" that scientists have deemed good for us have turned out to give health problems over the long term.

Like a fine mushroom, the huitlacoche has a delicate taste. I like to pan toast it. An Internet search for huitlacoche will offer up a number of recipes for it. A number of North American chefs call it the "Mexican Truffle".

I have eaten it raw as well. I demonstrated this to my maize harvest team. When I showed up the next day still alive I think they were moderately convinced.

Having done some wild mushroom hunting in northern California, I've learned a few rules about that hobby. One is to find out if one of your target mushrooms has any look-alikes that are poisonous. Huitlacoche has none. There's no mistaking the maize smut fungus.

I would like to rewrite this as an article for the Tanzanian newspapers. In a region where hunger and malnutrition is an issue, and where maize is the primary crop, the maize smut fungus can be a source of valuable protein and nutrients.







Above: Huitlacoche tacos.

3 comments:

Kate McNally said...

Wow, Don. Who would have thought! Did everyone at the vollage try this 'delicacy'?

Kate said...

Wow Don. Who would have thought! Did you manage to convince all the Kesho Krew to sample this 'delicacy'?

Anonymous said...

Hi Don,

I'm really interested in fungus too...
Where do you live?????