Chef Rosie O’Conner
Special to Valley News
I eat bugs! There I said it. They say it’s the first step to admitting you have a problem. I am a chef after all, and I have a responsibility to try everything that is put in front of me. I’ve made two trips to Mexico determined to find these delicacies, and I was compelled to bring them back to share this experience with you.
In the past, insects were the main food component and diet of Mexico before Spanish conquest. Insect consumption goes back to prehistoric times when Mexico didn’t have cows, chicken or pork as a form of protein. Bugs were a great alternative. Mexico, like any country, lives and feeds off the land. In the United States, we eat possum in the south, alligator in Florida and in France, they eat escargot which are snails. We learn to survive with what we have. So we tried the three most popular types when on our trips to Oaxaca and Mexico City.
Gusanos are butterfly worms found in the Maguey plant which is used to make tequila and mezcal. When we arrived, I saw this worm was at the bottom of a tequila bottle, encouraging me to reembrace my party days in Tijuana where we earned our t-shirts that said, “I ate the worm.”
After a few shots of smoky mezcal in Oaxaca, the vendors were kind enough to roast and serve them with peanuts. Somehow, once we were tipsy, I realized I no longer had an issue eating them. Almost like drinking to the point where you get goggle eyes. I was expecting them to be gummy, but they were toasty and salty. They reminded me a crispy french fries.
Chapulines are grasshoppers, another popular insect delicacy found everywhere in Mexico. The streets were saturated with vendors that sold them. Grasshoppers are high in protein, nearly as much as salmon and with absolutely no fat. They are filled with nutrition and are the staple of Oaxaca. The streets were filled with huge sacs of roasted grasshoppers coming in many different flavors. I chose the salted garlic flavor. I won’t lie; I had a difficult time working up the courage to eat it because they look just like the grasshoppers we find dead in our backyard.
However, I didn’t want to offend the 85-year old woman whose sole purpose is to sell these at the mercado, so I quickly placed it in my mouth. I can honestly say the flavor was like a sun-dried tomato. On our way back to our hotel, we got caught in a storm, and found refuge in an ice cream parlor. The owner let us try a tamarindo chapuline sorbet, and it was surprisingly amazing.
When we served them back home at the restaurant for our Oaxaca tequila dinner, they were such a big hit that no one took pictures of the rest of the food I prepared. The buzz was all about the grasshoppers.
The last bug we tried were hormigas chicatanas, the reddish brown flying ants with huge wings that only come out during the rainy summer season of Oaxaca. We stopped to put gas in the van, and I was caught by surprise. They were so many flying ants that I felt I was trapped in a scene from the book of Exodus.
“Those are chicatanas” the tour guide explained. It almost seemed like they came to bid me farewell. We were not able to eat them that day, so I made sure we scheduled a trip to Mexico City just to try them.
We finally had the chance to try chicatanas at the restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. Chef Enrique Olvera roasted the ants, making a sauce using a molcajete, which is a stone mortal and pestle, and mixing the paste with mayonnaise. He served it with baby roasted corn in a hollowed squash vessel filled with smoke. The sauce was delicious and tasted smoky with a charred flavor. The baby corn added a nice sweet finish to the bite.
So, there you have it. I have tried three insects from Mexico. I eat bugs! When in Mexico, get a little adventurous and try them. Send me a picture or comment to Chef Rosie O’Connor on Facebook or Instagram @chefrosie. I will love hear from you.