Mexico City -The table is richly set: a dish of tiny worms, another of crisp roasted grasshoppers, some delicate ant eggs and a heap of nondescript black bugs.
“And this is just for starters,” boasts Leopoldo Ortega, co-owner of a popular restaurant specializing in pre-Colombian food. “After this, you can taste our iguana, our venison, our armadillo and our rattlesnake.”
Mexico, with its pervasive Aztec Indian roots routinely visible in ruins, typical garb and music, is seeing a revival of traditional fare.
In crowded restaurants in the center of the capital, residents and tourists alike can probe an ancient cuisine whose main ingredients are exotic animals, insects, flowers and roots.
… In Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations, these dishes were seen as delicacies and were served to the mighty.
Like the tortilla – a Mexican staple of thin-rolled corn flour – insects remain a common ingredient in many regions of the country.
What does the escamol ant look like? Ortega delicately scoops aside the eggs to reveal a small black ant in a tiny pond of melted butter, surrounded by parsley.
‘It’s not just any ant,” he says. You must be able to tell them apart, just as not any worm will do-it has to be the one that lives in the heart of the maguey.”
The worms are eaten roasted. Their mild flavor vanishes under a tomato or avocado sauce.
The maguey, a cactus with plump fleshy limbs, hosts the worms and provides the raw material for pulque, a strong alcoholic beverage. It was traditionally used also as a source of sugar.
… Ortega’s restaurant opened 35 years ago. Then it catered to farmers from outlying regions.
Although most of the patrons are Mexican, gourmet tourists in search of a culinary thrill have begun to drift in.
“Aren’t you going to try the roasted chapulines?” asks the eager chef.
‘Me crisp grasshoppers, about an inch long, are eaten whole, legs and all. Their taste is as mild as that of the worms, and here, too, a sauce dominates.
Mexico City – On a rainy afternoon at the Fonda Don Chon, senoras slapped tortillas out in front, balladeers sang around the back, and at a corner table, two pistol-packing state cops munched on worms.
Nearby, a large table full of bureaucrats wolfed down ant eggs, while a pair of professors chatted over toasted grasshoppers and guacamole.
The typical fare at this crowded cafe and a half-dozen others in the capital is crunchy evidence of a Mexican tradition – bug eating – and a small but increasingly vocal school of health-conscious gourmets who swear by a back-to-basics diet, Aztec style.
“Today, young people want the hamburger, the hot dog, something quick but not so healthy,” said Don Chon chef Fortino Rojas Contreras, whose considerable girth hints at a one-man assault on the insect world. “They know nothing of the rich sources of protein enjoyed by their ancestors.”
Yet pre-Hispanic cuisine is drawing new attention at a time of growing public concern about how Mexicans eat. Recently, the leading newspaper Excelsior reported 70 percent of the nation suffers from a poor diet, causing early deaths and serious mental and physical illnesses in young children.
Government agronomist Hilda Mendoza said such problems could be eased by turning back to old dietary standbys, including about 240 species of edible insects, larvae, eggs and worms.
“We must lose our modern prejudices,” she said. “We think of flies as dirty because they hang around the garbage, but of course not all insects are flies. What’s so dirty about a bee?
In fact, not all bugs bear the lowly fly ‘s scorn. The maguey worm – the critter found in bottles of some brands of tequila – is regarded widely in this country as a delicacy.
Jumiles – flying bedbugs – are so beloved in Guerrero state that whole families crowd the hills to hunt them when they are in season. The tiny bugs are eaten raw or cooked with salsa and revered each November with a Day of the Jumil, with music and dance and the annual selection of a new Jumil Queen.
Mexico has no monopoly on insect consumption, which is practiced throughout the hinterlands of South America, Asia and Africa. Bug eating is less common in the cities, because bugs are less available and thus treated as a delicacy, said Harvard social anthropologist Richard Grinker.
“In fact there are very few places in the world where people haven’t eaten insects,” he said. “Locusts and ants in Thailand are used as condiments. The Plains Indians used to eat grasshoppers.”
What is different in Mexico is those who hope to re-create awareness of such protein-rich fare often underscore their plea with a nationalistic argument.
All the same, the advocates’ efforts have made hardly a dent in modern Mexico’s diet.
Mendoza said she believes more Mexicans would be eating bugs were it not for decades of ad campaigns by international companies pushing white bread and Spam.
Endangered Wildlife Trust