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Mexican Truffles: Classing Up Corn Smut

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Poring over the short menu at the recently reopened Spindletop (1200 Louisiana, 713-654-1234) last week, something odd caught my eye. There, listed next to the cumin-rubbed rack of lamb, was a phrase I hadn't seen used in quite a long time: Mexican truffle.

Mexican truffle is a very rosy-sounding term for what is actually corn smut, better known in its native country as huitlacoche. But, said chef L.J. Wiley, "it doesn't taste like truffles."

"I think the reason people use the term is because it's a fungus," Wiley explained. "And for lack of a better term to describe it." Because although huitlacoche does have a striking earthy yet creamy funk to it that's not all that dissimilar from truffles, it's extremely far removed from them in terms of potency and price.

Wiley, who was recently the executive chef at Yelapa Playa Mexicana, offered huitlacoche on his menu with a skillet-fried chicken. It was a huge hit among his customers, most of whom weren't fazed by the term when seen on the menu. "A few people had questions about it," Wiley says, "but you just train the servers to explain what it is. I'm not going to say the servers didn't use the term Mexican truffle, but I left that to the servers to explain that it's a Mexican fungus with a funky, earthy flavor."

Like Yelapa, many restaurants in Houston -- such as Backstreet Cafe, Julia's Bistro and Hugo's -- have long served the item on their menus. And as a result, many Houston diners are far more accustomed to restaurants using the name "huitlacoche" rather than "Mexican truffle," which was first coined by the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

The following year, the James Beard Foundation held a now-famous dinner in which huitlacoche was the star ingredient. The purpose? To familiarize Americans with the delicious corn smut and to encourage use of the far fancier term "Mexican truffle." It was reasoned that upscale diners would be more receptive to the ingredient if it called to mind another high-end ingredient.

Back in the 1980s, the era of excess and pride in being completely out of touch with your food, this was a pretty great idea. And considering some of the awful (if hilarious) press it's received in the past, an image makeover was probably for the best.

But these days? It seems a little silly to me. Call a spade a spade. Right?

"We wanted to make sure that people who aren't familiar with food terms would understand the ingredients," explained Chef Jean Moysan, the French-born chef who's been with Spindletop for 13 years, when I spoke to him by phone last week.

Over my meal a few nights prior, I had listened with interest as tables around me -- a couple from Maine, some businessmen from Japan -- puzzled over various ingredients on the menu: fried green tomatoes, compressed watermelon, chipotle remoulade. Not surprising, as Spindletop sits 34 stories above the Hyatt Regency downtown and attracts a national as well as international audience from the hotel guests below. In this setting, "Mexican truffle" being favored over "huitlacoche" makes sense.

Mystery solved. But can we expect to see the term "Mexican truffle" experiencing a renaissance here in Houston?

No, says Wiley. "I would expect to see it called Mexican truffle maybe on a menu where it's not in an area known for Mexican food." He added with a laugh, "like most of the nation east of the Mississippi, only because it wouldn't be as common knowledge there."

But use of the term -- geography notwithstanding -- doesn't appeal to him at all. "I say stick with 'huitlacoche' and give people the full experience of it."

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