Edible insects were a mainstay of the Mesoamerican diet and have been consumed in Mexico for centuries. Not typically considered alongside the country’s more well-known gastronomic fare such as tacos, moles, tamales and the like, insectos are one of Mexico’s most time-honored culinary traditions. Many in the central and southern regions of the country still consume the critters as part of their daily sustenance.
It’s common to find baskets of crunchy chapulines (fried grasshoppers seasoned with lime, salt and dried chilies) in labyrinthine mercados in Oaxaca and Puebla. Or nutty escamoles (ant larvae) – often called “Mexican caviar” due to its rarity and richness – on the menu at traditional restaurants in Veracruz and Hidalgo.
In the past decade, however, chefs throughout Mexico have been reacquainting diners with the ancestral staple in dishes of modern Mexican cuisine. And doing so in a manner more befitting of the white tablecloth than the dusty floor of a Mayan hut.
Acclaimed chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City, one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, delights diners with his take on elotes — ears of corn coated in mayonnaise and dashed liberally with chili powder. Olvera’s interpretation utilizes baby corn slathered in costeno chili mayonnaise and peppered with chicatanas, the midsection of flying ants. The edible insects are harvested in southern Mexico as they fall from the sky during rainy season.
At Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant Pangea in Monterrey, chef Eduardo Morali serves escamoles two ways: in a risotto with hazelnuts and sprinkled simply over stalks of white asparagus. His preparations are subtle, allowing the nutty taste and creamy texture of the pre-Hispanic delicacy to shine through.
Edible Insects at Restaurant Cien Años
Closer to home in Baja California, a variety of the 500+ edible insects that crawl, fly and burrow throughout Mexico can be found in markets and restaurants just across the border in Tijuana. At restaurant Cien Años in the Zona Rio neighborhood, chef José Sparza serves a tasting menu of insects which he prepares vis-a-vis traditional methods.
“Like fruits and vegetables, edible insects are seasonal,” says the chef. “That means chapulines from August until December, and Gusanos de Maguey (worms from the leaves of the maguey plant) in July and August.” (see the seasonal insect chart at the end of this article)
Sparza serves his insects as tacos, tucked within a variety of warm, house-made, nixtamalized tortillas of white, yellow and blue heirloom corn. They’re accompanied by salsas in heavy molcajetes, including a profoundly deep salsa rojo and a piquant salsa verde of tomatillo and Serrano chili.
Flight of the Insects
Sparza shares, “In the manner of Oaxaca, our insect taco flight is accompanied by a bottle of mezcal.” The smoky and aggressive Mexican agave spirit combines perfectly with the salty, acerbic taste of his chapulines and pairs nicely with the restaurant’s escamoles— sautéed in butter and garlic with onion and jalapeño peppers, salted, doused in mezcal and set afire to finish the dish.
“The cooking of insects should be very simple,” Sparza continues. “I learned from (traditional cooks) I met in Oaxaca, Tulancingo, Mexico City and Tierra Colorada in the state of Guerrero.” Though ingredients and methods used in his uncomplicated preparations should not be assumed. When pressed for the recipe of his tangy, crunchy and slightly spicy chapulines, the chef demurs, “That is a recipe handed down to me in secrecy.”
“The cooking of insects should be simple.”
– Jose Sparza, Executive Chef, Cien Años
Tacos of escamoles, chapulines, chicatanas and gusanos de maguey are featured during the tasting, as well as chinicuiles on tortillas of mixed blue and yellow corn. The small red worms reside in the roots of agave cultivated for tequila and mezcal, are unearthed en masse, fried on a comal until crispy, seasoned with salt and lime and frequently garnished with a dollop of creamy guacamole.
Sparza likes to prepare an unusual protein at the end of his insect tastings. It might be tostadas of steamed and shredded rattlesnake, which has a similar taste and texture as chicken, but slightly oilier. Or during a recent visit, a taco of dense, flavorful crocodile which has a firm texture reminiscent of pork.
Protein of the Future
In the US, many turn their noses up at the mention of edible insects, yet they’re consumed daily by over 2 billion people worldwide, primarily in Latin America, Asia and Africa. As the population of the planet continues to grow and grazing areas for livestock diminish, many speculate that Entomophagy – the eating of insects – will be key in providing the rest of the world eco-friendly protein in the not-too-distant future.
According to Eva Muller, a director at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Consumer disgust remains one of the largest barriers to the adoption of insects as viable sources of protein in many Western countries. Nevertheless, history has shown that dietary patterns can change quickly, particularly in the globalized world.” *
“Consumer disgust is the largest barrier.”
– Eva Muller, Director, FAO
It’s not necessary to be a survivalist or a prepper to know that bugs are indeed the food of tomorrow. One can get a head start on the additional 3 billion inhabitants estimated to populate the planet by the year 2030 by sampling the elegant entomophagy on offer at restaurant Cien Años.
Edible Insects By Season
(Red Maguey Worm)
|Gusano de Maguey
The insect tasting menu at restaurant Cien Años is $30/US per person and includes six taco courses and a bottle of mezcal. Tastings are by appointment only and require a minimum group of 10.
Cien Años is located at José María Velazco 2531, Colonia Zona Rio, 22010 Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. The restaurant is closed for remodeling until later in 2019. Groups can be accommodated at Tadeo Chilaquería, located next door to Cien Años. For reservations: +52 (664) 634-3039.