Mmmm! Corn Smut!

Expand your culinary horizons by trying one of these strange delicacies

hey're squishy. They're spiky. They're funky-colored. They're even a little smelly. They're oh-so-delicious delicacies that are hard to come by, unless you know where to look.

Lucky for you, we're living in the culturally and culinarily diverse community that is Tucson, with plenty of ethnic- and specialty-foods markets where you can experience sights, smells and tastes that will broaden your palate, or at the very least, make you say, "Well, that's interesting" before sticking out your tongue in disgust.

The first stop is the 17th Street Market, 840 E. 17th St., 792-2588. Tucked away amidst large industrial buildings, the market is notoriously difficult to find.

Walking into the market, all kinds of new smells overwhelm the senses, and the first thing I pick up to ogle over is a whole dried squid. But that's not what I'm looking for. Walking past aisle after aisle of pickled oddities and everything canned, I find the giant walk-in refrigerated produce section hidden in the corner of the building.

The 17th Street Market is one of the few places in Tucson that carries fresh exotic produce, as well as organic produce. (AJ's Fine Foods, at 2805 E. Skyline Drive, 232-6340, also has a wide variety of produce, but is generally much more expensive.)

One of the exotic, rarely seen fresh fruits that can be found at the 17th Street Market is lychee (or litchi), a ping-pong-ball-sized tropical fruit native to Southeast Asia. With its inedible reddish-purple spiky outer layer, it looks impenetrable, but goodies are hidden just below the surface. Once the rind is peeled off, a milky clear fruit is revealed, with a texture similar to a grape. Every time I eat one, I can't help but think it would make a great faux-eyeball for Halloween.

The sweet, juicy flesh inside tastes a little bit like strawberries, but it's incomparable to any other flavor. There is a hard, glossy, dark-brown seed in the middle of the fruit, which is slightly poisonous.

The 2,000-plus-year-old fruit is purported to be a good source of Vitamin C, riboflavin and potassium. They're now being grown in Hawaii and some areas of California, so they're more readily available fresh. They're always available canned, but the texture and flavor are mostly lost in the process.

Did I mention that they're really good in desserts, especially with vanilla ice cream?

Right across from the lychees in the produce section of the 17th Street Market are purple potatoes. Yes, they're potatoes, and yes, they're purple.

Though they don't taste much different from Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes, purple potatoes--which are sometimes referred to as purple Peruvian potatoes, although that's actually only one variety--are just plain cool-looking. I mean, come on! They're bright purple!

Also known as blue potatoes and black potatoes (I guess it all depends on your color perspective), these tubers retain their color after cooking, and were, according to some nutritional anthropologists, some of the first potatoes harvested in the Andes Mountains.

Though not currently on any local menus that I could find, purple potatoes occasionally pop up on the menus at the Arizona Inn's main dining room, 2200 E. Elm St., 325-4501, and at Janos/J Bar, 3770 E. Sunrise Drive, 615-6100.

"Purple potatoes are unique because they have that purple flesh that goes all the way through them," says Chef Odell Baskerville, executive chef at the Arizona Inn.

Baskerville says that he uses the Peruvian blue variety for their creamy texture; he says he likes to use them in mashed potatoes, but has also featured them in dishes such as potato pancakes and chips.

"We always try to give our diners a good experience, to show them something they might not see on a regular basis," he says.

One of the Tucson Originals restaurants (see Rita Connelly's "Indie Inspirations" in the Winter 2006 "Yum!"), Janos/J Bar is currently featuring another, more-than-slightly unusual ingredient. Huitlacoche is also known as "corn smut." A product of a disease that infects corn and maize plants, it is a black, spongy fungus that is considered a delicacy in much of Mexico, Central and South America.

Sometimes called a "Mexican truffle," the fungus has a taste similar to mushrooms, although it is a bit sweeter and smokier-tasting. It is most commonly made into a soup with onion, garlic, milk and chicken broth.

Carlos Calderon, chef de cuisine at Janos, says that they're currently dishing up a twist on traditional huitlacoche soup--one made with pineapple, cucumber, mango and salmon gravlax (salmon cured in salt and brown sugar with citrus zest).

"You can make it into a salad, with corn, obviously, since it's mold from corn," he says. "I've also seen sauces made out of it, like veal-based sauces similar to Bordelaise."

He says that he likes to use different or odd ingredients to get awareness out there, so that people can expand their culinary horizons.

"We want to use ingredients that are indigenous to this area, to Mexico, to South America," he says. "We just want people to know what's out there."

Usually found in its canned form here in Tucson, huitlacoche is rarely available fresh. You can pick up a can of the foamy, gooey, black fungus at some of the Food City locations, and it is sometimes available at the Grantstone Supermarket, 8 W. Grant Road, 628-7445.

And speaking of indigenous ingredients, one of Tucson's most common plants is also a local delicacy, although a rather spiny one.

Nopalitos, or nopales, are stem segments from peeled prickly pear pads, and they are commonly used in Mexican food. The pads of larger, so-called "garden" cactuses are used, because pads from the smaller varieties have a tendency to be bitter and astringent-tasting.

Though nopalitos have a texture similar to green chilies once cooked, they are more mucilaginous, meaning the plant produces a sticky, mucus-like substance that thickens even more after cooking.

Nopalitos have a subtle flavor, not unlike that of a green bell pepper, and are slightly tart. J Bar serves up their happy-hour "J Dawgs" with a plentiful helping of nopalitos, and La Parrilla Suiza (three locations: cooks them in their "nopalitos campesinos" dish with pork and tomatillos. At La Indita, 622 N. Fourth Ave., 792-0523, proprietress Maria Garcia is even dishing up nopalitos as a main course, served with beans and rice.

"It's a tradition that comes from all over Mexico," she says, her daughter translating. "Actually, it was an Aztec tradition." At La Indita, they'll put nopalitos in just about anything you want; all you have to do is ask, she says.

"Lots of people are curious about it now, especially because it's good for you," Garcia says. "They're good for cleaning the stomach; they have a lot of medicinal purposes, too."

So broaden your taste buds and your mind; stop by a local market and pick up some of these weird and wacky foods to try at home. You'll be glad you did, or if nothing else, you can tell stories about that time you ate eyeball fruit, corn smut, purple potatoes and cactus.