Why do Mexicans love a fungus that ruins corn?

Reply Wed 17 Aug, 2011 10:11 am
August 16, 2011
Why do Mexicans love a fungus that ruins corn?
By Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers

CHAPINGO, Mexico — At this time of year, when corn grows high, some farmers go into their fields hoping that a disease has infected their crops.

They inspect for swollen husks, a telltale sign that a parasitic fungus has spread into a spongy iridescent mass inside the ears.

The farmers are pleased, for the fungus is one of the greatest delicacies of the Mexican kitchen. It's been called the Mexican truffle, and a "food of the gods." The unique, earthy taste has been part of local cuisine since Aztec times.

The name of the fungus in the indigenous Nahuatl language is huitlacoche (pronounced weet-la-KOH-chay, sort of rhyming with Don Quixote). As hard as that may be to say, it's infinitely sweeter sounding than the English name: corn smut. That moniker is a slur to huitlacoche's complex flavors and defamation of its culinary properties.

"It's completely different from other fungus. There are Ph.D.s here trying to figure out why its taste is so special," said Dr. Clemente Villanueva, a geneticist at the Autonomous University of Chapingo, a top agricultural school that's in the same valley as Mexico City.

The cultivation of huitlacoche is skyrocketing, as urban Mexicans are regaining an appreciation of foods native to their country. Once a haphazard if tasty infestation, huitlacoche now is being farmed commercially, with farmers injecting spores of the fungus into immature cornstalks. The fungus ruins the corn for human consumption, but it sells for much more than the corn itself, which can still be used to feed livestock. As a result, huitlacoche production has climbed fourfold in the past five years, Villanueva said.

"Before, it was seen as a food of the poor. Now it's the food of the rich," said Raul Nieto Angel, the dean of the crop sciences department at the university, which extensively tests and researches huitlacoche.

Chefs at swank restaurants are rekindling a traditional love for the fungus.

"It is very exquisite," said Rodrigo Flores, chef at the Hacienda de los Morales restaurant in Mexico City's upscale Polanco district. "Demand for it is rising every day. . . . In our restaurant, we consume 2 tons of it a year."

In recent decades — before huitlacoche really took off — the fungus largely was sauteed with garlic, onions and poblano chile strips and served by street vendors in quesadillas, folded-over corn tortillas. Then cooks realized its flavor would make nearly any dish sensational. Restaurants sometimes offer it with beef, fish, in crepes with chipotle sauce, with eggs, in cream soups or with shrimp.

"It is so rich in flavors," Flores said, "that it can become the central element in a main dinner."

Seen in the fields, huitlacoche makes one want to run and hide.

"It's this kind of puffy mushroom, a bluish-grayish color, that will kind of take over an ear of corn. It looks sort of alien and otherworldly when you actually see it," said Lesley Tellez, an American who writes a food blog and operates Eat Mexico, a business that offers culinary tours of the capital.

She described the taste as "mushrooms on steroids" but added: "It's not really like any other mushroom you've tasted. It's really unique."

Connoisseurs look for it fresh in markets when it's still spongy, rather than flaccid. They don't wash it before cooking, to avoid flushing away the succulent black spores.

Mexico's pre-Columbian inhabitants savored the fungus. But like chefs today, they struggled to classify it. The ancient Aztecs called it a mushroom, while the Maya put it in the same food category as meat. Some ancient peoples said it had curative properties for stomach ulcers.

What scientists have learned more recently is that the fungus is rich in lysine and tryptophan, the two key amino acids that most corn lacks. When eaten together with corn, it creates a more complete range of amino acids for protein synthesis, Villanueva said.

Huitlacoche is endemic to six states of central Mexico, where airborne or soil-borne spores infect the tender parts of the corn plant, taking anywhere from 12 days to nearly a month to mature, depending on climate and elevation.

Once harvested, farmers hurry the fungus to market.

"It is very perishable. It is as fragile as a strawberry," Villanueva said. "If you keep it at 4 degrees (Celsius, or 39 degrees Fahrenheit), it can keep for nine days."

Baskets piled with fungus surrounded Lilia Simon Bravo as she attended to clients at Mexico City's largest produce market, Central de Abastos. She ripped the husks off pregnant-looking corn, bloated by the huitlacoche, and said the taste of that produced in her native Puebla state was unrivaled.

"This has not been injected. It is natural," she said. "It is really excellent."

Agronomists have learned to use large syringes to inject a liquid rich with huitlacoche spores into immature corn, essentially seeding it. Under the right conditions, farmers can produce a ton or two of huitlacoche per acre. Villanueva said that in irrigated greenhouses, researchers got as much as 12 tons per acre.

Huitlacoche doesn't yet enjoy legal status as a special food. Unlike French Champagne and Camembert cheese, Italian prosciutto, Florida orange juice, Idaho potatoes and Vidalia onions, all of which enjoy some legal status requiring production within a limited geographic area, anyone who knows how can harvest and sell huitlacoche. This is a sore subject at the local university, where experts say Mexico fails to protect a culinary treasure.

Already, agronomists from Uruguay and the United States have inquired about huitlacoche production, and farmers near Morelia are shipping the fungus to Japan.

Canned huitlacoche is available in specialty and ethnic markets in the United States and many other countries but the taste, at best, is a shadow of the fresh stuff.

Even so, this reporter once attended a dinner in Beijing where the Mexican hostess offered chicken breast stuffed with huitlacoche, made with the canned variety, which she'd hand-carried from her homeland. It brought gasps of pleasure from exalted diners.

Tellez said foreign diners should overcome the "ick factor" of eating something with an unappetizing English name and give it a try as an exotic food.

"This is something that has existed in the Americas for so long. It's unique. It's different," she said. "It's something you'll only find in Mexico, and that gives it some cachet."

Huitlacoche is the fungal, culinary delicacy Ustilago maydis that grows on ears of corn. Inhabitants of Mexico and indigenous people from the Southwestern United States enjoy this rich, smoky ingredient in foods like tamales, soups, quesadillas, appetizers, and ice cream. While farmers treat huitlacoche as an infectious affliction that ruins corn crops, it has a long history in the cuisine of Aztecs, Hopi, and Zuni.

The word huitlacoche, pronounced whee-tla-KO-cheh, comes from two words in Nahuatl, the language of ancient Aztecs occupying the area that became Mexico. "Huitlatl" means excrement and "coche" means raven. Europeans have tried to rename what they consider a grotesque word to popularize the unusual fungus by calling it Mexican Truffle, Aztec Caviar, or Maize Mushroom. Yet huitlacoche remains a regional specialty because it is best fresh, but has also been canned or frozen for export.

Huitlacoche, also spelled cuitlacoche, remains fairly rare because it appears on ears of corn as they ripen after a heavy rain or period of high moisture. Some farmers are experimenting with purposefully cultivating it, but they have not had a lot of success. The fungus resembles grey or silver dry bulbs inside the ears along normal kernels. Once the kernels are "infected," they will swell slightly and turn darker shades of grey as the spores grow. Huitlacoche can be harvested just as you would harvest unaffected corn kernels.

Read more: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/08/16/120906/why-do-mexicans-love-a-fungus.html#ixzz1VIqopTSZ
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Reply Wed 17 Aug, 2011 10:11 am
Holy mole! The sauce Mexicans love (you may, too)
By Tim Johnson | McClatchy Newspapers

SAN PEDRO ATOCPAN, Mexico — Few dishes central to Mexican cuisine are as little-known outside the country as mole, the thick, dark sauce redolent of chocolate, anise, chili peppers, sesame and myriad other complex flavors.

That's because mole is as laborious to make as it is delicious to eat. It can take days to hunt down, prepare, grind, brown and mash the ingredients.

Mole (pronounced MOE-lay) dates to Aztec times, and its many variants commonly are served in Mexico on special occasions.

"We eat moles at festivals, weddings, birthday parties, even at wakes," said Gabriel Sanchez de la Cruz, a spokesman for this mountain town a little more than an hour's drive southeast of Mexico City, where a national mole festival is under way.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to San Pedro Atocpan each October to dip into an endless variety of dishes made with the sauce, which holds an honored spot in the national cuisine. The town claims to make 60 percent of the processed mole that's sold in Mexico.

One survey found that 99 percent of Mexicans have tried mole or regularly eat it in dishes such as mole poblano atop chicken, enchiladas with mole or mole on chilacayote, a type of squash. Different varieties of mole are flavored with almonds, pine nuts or mashed fruit.

Mole's texture is thick and slightly oily. Think heavy barbecue sauce. Ground peanuts and sesame seeds — as well as the optional lard — give the sauce its heaviness. The flavor is peppery, nutty, earthy, cocoa-y and smoky all at once, with elements of fruitiness tossed in. It can be as hard to describe as good varieties of wine.

Bite by bite, mole sauces are making headway in the United States. For a formal state dinner at the White House in May, President Barack Obama invited a guest chef from Chicago, Rick Bayless, who put a Oaxacan black mole on the menu. It was a brave move. The guest of honor was President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.

"I chose the black mole because it is one of the most complex moles flavor-wise and one of the most difficult to make. It took me over 20 years to get it right," said Bayless, who's the chef at Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

"Shopping for it alone is daunting," Bayless added, providing his own recipe to McClatchy. "But I always encourage all home cooks to try recipes or projects" — building a pit to roast a suckling pig, for instance — "I think it is great to push yourself."

Bayless' version of mole comprises 26 ingredients. Other recipes call for more than 30, providing an overlay of gastronomically complex flavors.

The word "mole" is derived from the Nahuatl word "mulli" or "molli," for sauce or concoction. It's commonly prepared with four types of dried chilies — mulato, pasilla, chipotle and ancho — which must be seeded and ground into powder.

As recently as a few decades ago, the chilies were ground by hand on metates, or stone slabs. Dozens of women would take part in communal events for weeks before annual festivals.

"I remember that you'd see two lines of 25 metates, and everyone would grind face to face," said Angelina Cordero, a mole maker.

Grinding the chilies was the most laborious part of making the sauce, and the advent of small electric mills in recent decades hastened preparation. Readying the chilies is still time-consuming, however.

"You have to work with a tiny knife to cut the chilies open and get out the tiny seeds," said Beatriz Meza Retana, the spokeswoman for the National Mole Festival.

Mole recipes are often family secrets. Juanita Evillano, the 64-year-old owner of El Jacal restaurant in San Pedro Atocpan, said she first learned how to make mole when she was 8 years old.

"I learned from my mom and my grandmother. It's been coming down from generation to generation since pre-Hispanic times," she said.

After the Spanish conquest more than 500 years ago, cooks began to add new ingredients such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sesame seeds from the Arab world, cloves from the Far East, and sometimes anise and coriander seeds.

Over the decades, mole makers took some of the pungent bite from the chilies by throwing in unsweetened chocolate, pine nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds and different types of fruit, such as ground raisins and fried banana, specifically a type known as a platano macho.

"The banana is used so that it's not too spicy," Evillano said.

Still, the complex aroma of mole is such that security officials at Mexico City's international airport told the Reforma newspaper earlier this year that passengers carrying mole were triggering bomb-detecting equipment. They asked passengers to declare if they toted mole sauce or paste to avoid unpleasant delays.

At the high altitudes and cool temperatures of central Mexico, semi-processed mole paste can be kept for six to eight months unrefrigerated, several producers said.

Town leaders of San Pedro Atocpan, population about 9,000, say that 92 percent of its adults take part in the artisanal making of mole, sending it to Mexico City and around the nation in large plastic buckets. Producers tweak their recipes and claim special qualities for their own moles. One shop claims that its sauce never produces the indigestion for which heavy mole sometimes is known.

When one producer, Angelina Cordero, was pressed to reveal her secret ingredients, Sanchez, the town spokesman, jumped in: "What you're asking are very specific questions that would reveal part of the patrimony of San Pedro Atocpan."

Town fathers are trying to develop a seal of geographical origin to give the mole produced here a special boost, like champagne from France, Iberian ham from Spain or special balsamic vinegar from Italy.

Prepared mole in jars or sealed packs often is available in large supermarkets in the United States, but none of it yet comes from San Pedro Atocpan. The town's small producers are still trying to master the quality-control rules needed to export.

"It's going to happen," said Manuel Trujillo, an engineer at Don Pancho, the biggest mole producer in San Pedro Atocpan. "The strongest enterprises will start to export to the United States and Europe."

Demand for mole among Mexican immigrants to the States will drive the market, Trujillo said, and slowly the palate of non-Hispanics may take to the sauce.

In the end, Cordero broke down and revealed the secret ingredient in her almond mole: "Love, always love, so that it tastes better. Yes, love, yes!"

Read more: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/10/11/101895/holy-mole-the-sauce-mexicans-love.html#ixzz1VIrM0fwS
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Reply Wed 17 Aug, 2011 05:26 pm
the mexican is love, hot mexico, me gusta mexico bastante y esos lugares los e visto en fotos saludos!!!!.
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