A Quesadilla With Corn Fungus, Por Favor

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What's in a name? A lot. Just ask Archibald Leach (otherwise known as Cary Grant). Or a dolphin fish (now called mahi-mahi or dorado).

Huitlacoche is another one. Pronounced wheat-la-COH-chay, it sounds kind of cool, doesn't it? And yet it translates into English as sleeping excrement. It's also known by U.S. farmers as corn smut. Is it sounding less appealing yet? Would you prefer the James Beard Foundation's attempt to elevate it by calling it the "Mexican truffle?"

"I hate all of those names," says chef Roberto Santibañez, author of Truly Mexican, and a Huitlacoche-eater since he was a boy in Mexico. "Why can't we just call it a corn mushroom?"

Santibanez 's suggestion is a good one because it cuts through some of the mystique surrounding a Mexican delicacy that's been eaten for centuries, back to the Aztecs, and, more recently, has been on the tip of many a foodie's tongue.

It is indeed a fungus that grows on corn, cherished in Mexico, and treated as blight by U.S. farmers who have spent millions trying to eradicate it. In its most authentic and delicious form, it remains a difficult-to-obtain ingredient because of its expense and limited availability. You can find it at a lot of Mexican restaurants these days, slopped into quesadillas, but that's usually the canned kind.

That's the only way that I've had it — at a nondescript Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, south of Houston — but I still found it delicious. It has a rich, musty taste that worked well in the so-called crêpe it was served in. In fact, maybe it was too rich. Santibañez says that when it's "really black, really soft, really intense," then it's probably from a can. When it's fresh, it has more of a silver or grey color, and is more delicate-tasting, "almost like earth."

Santibañez, who also simply describes the taste as "like mushrooms and corn together," will be serving the good stuff alongside other Mexican favorites at his Brooklyn restaurant, Fonda, in the fall. The best harvests, he says, are at the beginning and end of the rainy season in Mexico (there are also U.S. producers in Florida and Texas), so around June or September, huitlacoche's at its best. Santibanez likes to bump it up with more mushrooms and corn, sometimes as an accompaniment to steak.

I guess I'm late to the party — "everyone asks for it," says Santibañez — and I'm just following the trend, but the next time I'm in a Mexican restaurant I'll make sure to show my foodie superiority with a follow-up question: "Is it fresh?"

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