TikTok is going wild for pasta elote: a fusion dish where noodles are paired with ingredients commonly used in Mexican street corn, like lime, cilantro and cotija cheese. While the ever-trending Corn Kid made 2022 the vegetable's big year, corn may continue to rise in popularity in 2023 as pasta elote trends on social media and food blogs and makes appearances on acclaimed restaurant menus.
"Everyone loves corn — especially in the summer — and with the rise in popularity of street Mexican everything, elote has grown in popularity too," says Elio Gomez, the Mexico City-raised executive chef of Taqueria Picoso in Alexandria, Va. "We sell cases of it every week at our restaurant."
Gomez isn't the least bit surprised that people are using the beloved side (corn on the cob charred on a grill and slathered with a mayonnaise-like chili, garlic and cotija cheese sauce) as a jumping-off point for new carb-loaded creations. "Everyone also loves pasta," he says, "and the flavor of the corn, mayo and cheese goes well with pasta."
Phoenix-based Staley Lane, the chef and on-camera talent at Sauced Up Foods, was also unsurprised to see pasta elote recipes gain steam, given how popular creative fusion recipes like birria ramen, Sonoran hot dogs and cowboy caviar are on social media. "Food fusion can be controversial [but] I feel food is about experimentation and the culinary arts benefit from trying unexpected things," Lane says.
"That's what draws people in, the idea of Wait, I know the flavor of elote and the flavor of pasta, but [what about putting them] together?," she continues. "That curiosity keeps people watching or coming back to your restaurant."
What is elote?
To better comprehend what people are going shucking nuts over and how pasta elote is different than the average Italian-inspired corn pasta, it's helpful to first understand what Mexican street corn is and how it's made.
Gomez, whose eatery specializes in the comforting delicacies commonly slung from street corners, food trucks and carts in his home country, explains. "The word 'elote' evolved from the Nahuti word elotituti which translates to 'tender cob.'" he shares. "Elote is essentially the [version of] corn on the cob served in Mexico."
What differentiates Mexican street corn from the American version, Gomez says, is the corn variety used — white not yellow — and the condiments typically slathered all over it including shredded cotija cheese, mayonnaise, lime and chili powder.
"Street corn's flavors are powerful, explosive and comforting all at the same time," says chef Jason Neroni. Neroni owns The Rose in Venice, Calif., where corn pasta presentations, including a street corn agnolotti (a type of stuffed pasta), are consistently top sellers when featured. Neroni only adds the dishes to his menu when Brentwood corn is in season (usually June through early fall) in Northern California. "When we take it off, people definitely notice," he says. "I could keep it on all year and it would sell, but we honor the seasons at The Rose. Using the best sweet corn in season — that's the key."
Elote is, of course, served all over Mexico but it's also all the rage in U.S. cities and states with large Mexican populations like Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Texas and Arizona. It's quickly gone from street cart staple to restaurant regular. "In Los Angeles, street corn is ubiquitous and available in most parts of LA, whether at a restaurant or from a taco truck," Neroni says. "I'm always inspired by the local flavors in Southern California and being surrounded by bright Mexican culture definitely had an impact on my [creating] this dish."
He isn't alone. Nasim Lahbichi, a Puerto Rican-Moroccan Brooklynite who has been developing recipes he describes as "unique, culturally-inspired dishes that appeal to the masses" for two years on TikTok, credits elote's rampant availability and flavor familiarity as the reasons he first started trying to figure out how to take elote from cob to carb fest.
"Mexican street corn and its sweet, spicy, creamy crunch has always been a favorite of mine," Lahbichi tells Yahoo Life. "Growing up in New York City, home to a huge Mexican diaspora, has allowed me to experience Mexican culture through food."
"Recently, I started experimenting with how traditional dishes from diverse communities and cultures could be represented in pasta form [because] the versatility of pasta allows any combination of flavors to shine," he adds.
Inspiration hit the @fooddolls, a sister duo from Minneapolis who have been creating food, DIY and organizational content for seven years, while they were dining out. "We had elote at a local restaurant, and we immediately thought it would be great as a pasta dish," Alia Elkaffas, one half of the duo, tells Yahoo Life. "People love fusion meals as it's a fun fresh take on a classic."
Radwa Elkaffas, her sister and business partner, adds, "It's a fun way to introduce more than one cuisine at a time."
From stalk to stock pot
Lahbichi is perpetually driven to connect different communities of people through food in order to "amplify their stories and empower" them, especially those who are queer or trans people of color. But some recipes, including one for pasta elote that's been viewed more than 800,000 times, has a more personal backstory.
"Often, I am inspired by my community and loved ones, using what they crave to make them feel seen, loved and nourished," the vlogger says. "I developed this recipe for someone I previously dated who was Mexican-American. It was frequently apparent to me that he desired food from the diaspora, and I wanted to create something that would make him feel at home."
Not that he didn't make the dish to his liking, too. As Lahbichi tries to eat a mostly plant-based diet and has been very open with his more than 530,000 followers about his controversial anti-mayonnaise opinions, he found a workaround for elote's traditional condiment by combining coconut cream and nutritional yeast. "The goal was to find a substitute that adds umami to the dish like mayo does," he explains. "But if you like mayo, you could use it. Cotija cheese follows tradition and plays well with lactose intolerance thanks to lower lactase levels. However, if you prefer to make the dish vegan, a vegan parm or feta could work."
Lahbichi also says there's no shame in using canned corn or taking shortcuts like Trader Joe's chili lime powder or Everything But The Elote seasoning blend. "I always suggest folks use whatever they have access to," he enthuses. "Being a kid who grew up eating canned goods, I find it disheartening to see many health and wellness creators online stigmatizing any food that isn't organic and fresh."
"This is not only pushing classist ideologies of health and wellness," he continues, "but is also extremely polarizing for those lacking access to fresh, affordable produce due to food apartheid. Canned corn may not be as nutritious or as flavorful as fresh corn, but it can produce delicious results that keeps folks fed."
More a-maize-ing pasta elote alternatives
Other TikTok foodies have added even further spins to pasta elote. There's a cold pasta salad version, courtesy of @foodsofjane, which the creator explains was equally inspired by "Chipotle's corn salsa and elote." The @fooddolls capitalized on another trend with their convenient one-pot pasta elote.
"One-pot meals are all the rage these days because who doesn't love a quick meal, that requires very little dishes?" Alia Elkaffas says. "This pasta dish comes together in less than 14 minutes, which is a major plus for busy families and people that don't want to spend hours in the kitchen."
Coming in hot (and gooey) is an elote-inspired macaroni and cheese dreamt up by Lane, who also cleverly crossed continents and created a quick and easy ramen elote. "Noodles and pastas of any kind always benefit from a little crunch," Lane says. "Elote brings that satisfying mouthfeel while giving the dish a bit of sweetness and spice."
Ready to make your own pasta elote? Lahbichi is shares the recipe for his vegetarian version, complete with his hack for achieving a creamy cheesy texture without using mayo, below.
Courtesy of Nasim Lahbichi at Lahb Co.
1 (15oz) can of corn kernels
1 cup canned full-fat coconut milk
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1/2 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces of pasta of choice (about 4 servings)
½ cup of grape tomatoes, sliced
Zest and juice of 2 limes
1/3 cup cilantro, for assembly and garnish
chili powder, for assembly and garnish
¼ cup cotija cheese, optional garnish for non-vegans
To make the sauce:
Drain and rinse the can of corn kernels. To a high-speed blender, add the corn kernels, coconut milk, nutritional yeast, cumin, chili powder, garlic cloves and salt.
Blend until creamy. Taste and adjust the seasoning (salt and pepper) to your liking. Once combined, place in an airtight container and set aside.
To assemble the pasta:
To serve, cook pasta according to package instructions in a large pot of boiling, salted water. While pasta cooks, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced grape tomatoes and season with a pinch of sea salt. Toss to cook until they blister and release their juices.
Once pasta is cooked, drain and reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water and drain. Add the pasta to the skillet with the sauce with ¼ cup of reserved pasta-cooking liquid to start. (Add more to dilute the sauce if desired.) Toss to coat the pasta with the sauce, swirling to emulsify the sauce. Once coated, add the lime juice, zest and ¼ cup of chopped cilantro.
Plate and garnish with fresh lime zest, remaining chopped cilantro and a dash of chili powder. Optionally, you can add about ¼ cup crumbled fresh cotija cheese if you are fine with a vegetarian version as opposed to the vegan version.
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