Bugs are ubiquitous in Mexico. You see them driving down the cobblestone streets in the historic center of town or along the highway, packed with family members.
I’ve seen eight people in a Volkswagen bug, five kids in the back seat, the driver behind the wheel, and his wife with a baby on her lap next to him. These bugs have been around a long time. Some are shiny with aluminum wheels. Others are rusted out and spitting smoke, and you wonder whether they have enough oomph left to get moving when the light turns green.
But these are not the bugs I’m talking about here. I want to focus on the edible kind: ants, grasshoppers, worms, beetles, larvae and grubs. Now, I hear you. You’re saying eeewww or ugh. If you are a visitor or expat who does not venture beyond the ken, your utterance might be particularly vocal.
More often than not these delicacies come disguised, flavored, ground, seasoned, chopped and otherwise undetectable to the naked eye if they are served as garnish at an upscale restaurant.
Those of us who live here or visit often are used to seeing strange creatures floating around in a bottle of mezcal or tequila, often settling to the bottom like a sleeping denizen waiting to be revived. Heaven forbid it should escape and get poured into someone’s glass.
We roam the weekly markets and see strings of worms tied neatly together like Christmas popcorn garlands, ready to eat, suspended between two poles. The chapulines are mounded in pyramids atop hand-woven reed baskets. Women with bandannas dish out 10 pesos’ worth with a tiny clay dish, grasped by weathered hands.
Mexicans have developed a taste for these things. Eating bugs is part of their pre-Hispanic, indigenous heritage. Their food source developed long before the time that sheep, cows, goats and other four-legged animals were introduced from Spain.
In Mesoamerica, eating closer to the food chain became an essential part of survival and protein consumption. The tradition continues today and I think of it as part Mexico’s cultural heritage. No one here is squeamish when a bug arrives at table.
Which is why I thought it was about time I tasted escamoles, chicatanas and gusanos. I became a fan of chapulines a few years ago. Ah, you may be saying, what IS she eating? On the menus of upscale restaurants, the dishes are translated from Spanish to English, though most have a Nahuatl origin.
If you venture out to more local venues, no translation will be provided. You might be surprised at what you are eating when it is presented to you or you may not even recognize it.
Let me offer a quick summary of bug food:
• Escamoles are the edible larvae and pupae of ants harvested from the roots of the agave cactus that produces either tequila or mezcal. Chefs say they taste buttery and nutty, with the consistency of cottage cheese.
• Chicatanas are flying ants that come with the first spring rains in Mexico. First you roast them to get rid of wings and head. Then, you pulverize them with a mortar and pestle, adding salt, pepper, garlic, maybe garlic and tomatoes, to make a spicy salsa, good to spread on a house-made tortilla.
• Gusanos are moth larvae that populate the agave plant, so you could call it a caterpillar or worm, and it is.
• Chapulines are commonplace, found in every indigenous Mexican market, red, roasted, salted and spiced with chile pepper, drizzled with lime juice and dried. Yes, these are grasshoppers. Better we eat them than they eat our bougainvillea.
Recently, I ran an experiment with friends at two Oaxaca restaurants, Los Danzantes and Casa Oaxaca. Here, as well as all over Mexico, innovative chefs experiment with ways to present edible bugs.
Sometimes the bugs are disguised with sauces, seasonings, hidden among the lettuce or avocado curls. Sometimes, they are artfully displayed on a crunchy tostada adorned with radish slices and cilantro as a distraction.
At Los Danzantes, I ordered memelas de escamoles con mole amarillo, larva de hormiga salteada con cebolla y epazote, or ant larvae with yellow mole sauce, sautéed with onion and epazote (a native perennial herb that is like oregano). The English translation here was limited, purposefully, I presume. I know a memela is a fist-sized corn pancake with a rim to hold things.
I offered to share the dish with any takers. Secretly, I hoped the four women sitting around the table at Los Danzantes would all join me, thus making my portion smaller. Only one agreed. A medical doctor, she was used to seeing the underbelly of things. The vegetarian turned the other cheek in polite declination.
A week later at Casa Oaxaca I ordered a tostada de gusanos de maguey, chapulines, mayonesa de chicatana, aguacate, cebolla, rábanos. That is: fried corn tortilla served open face with agave worms, grasshoppers, chicatana ants, guacamole, onion and radishes.
This time there were 12 sitting around the table and a few were more adventuresome than at the previous sitting. My friend the doctor was sitting across from me. Her eyes opened wide and she went for a bigger wedge than the others, who only wanted “a little taste.”
The camouflage on this dish made it more acceptable and about half took a morsel, marveling at the deep red color of the chapulines, their appendages imperceptible.
I’ve been known to sit around the kitchen table with my indigenous Zapotec friends who live in the Oaxaca valley, picking a seasoned whole grasshopper from the bowl, pulling off its long legs, discarding them on the flower-adorned oilcloth table covering, and popping it into my mouth. This can go on for a while, picking, pulling, popping, chewing each one. It’s taken me 12 years of living here to try the ant larvae.
Wikipedia says that eating bugs is called entomophagy. You can look it up. Bug eating is prevalent around the world. Cave dwellers did it. Nourishment comes in different packages and presentations.
Today, in the developed world, we may prefer a hunk of cow or pig, but think about what it means to eat a small crustacean we call shrimp or crawfish.
Environmentalists are turning to bugs as an alternative to meat, looking at lower-cost ways to capture protein that has minimal environmental impact. Experiments are going on in Mexico to make roasted grasshopper flour, too.
I haven’t yet tasted chahuis, the edible beetle that feeds on the mesquite tree. I hear it must be well toasted in order to enjoy it, otherwise it can be bitter. Something to look forward to!
Norma Schafer is a writer and photographer based in Oaxaca, and contributor to the guidebook, Textile Fiestas of Mexico. She travels the country to explore its art and culture and offers study tours and workshops that investigate the textile traditions of weaving, natural dyeing and related handwork. Her bio, blog and website is at http://oaxacaculture.com.