COVARRUBIAS, MEXICO – A feast fit for an Aztec king is making a comeback in Mexican restaurants serving some of the insect delicacies that once were relished by the country’s ancient rulers. It is not Montezuma’s revenge, but can you stomach it?
From corner cantinas to refined cafes, chefs are writing up menus that could make a foodie’s skin crawl. Furry worms, fly larvae and crunchy grasshoppers are just a few of the flavors being resurrected.
“We are going through an insect boom,” said Daniel Ovadia, chef of Mexico City’s high-end Paxia restaurant. “The escamoles — ant larvae that cost up to $100 per kilogram — disappear immediately,” he said, referring to the eggs known as “Mexican caviar.”
Ovadia freezes the eggs before frying them on a pan, otherwise the heat would make the precious caviar explode. He then serves them on a plate with guacamole and sprinkles dried chilies on top, returning some of the earthy texture of their former habitat.
His restaurant also serves azotador, a worm with black fur, or shield bugs — known as jumiles in Mexico — that crawl around the plate with their six legs and wiggly antennae. The jumiles, he explained, “make an impact when they are served alive because they taste better like that.”
“We are experiencing nostalgia,” Ovadia said, and chefs are seizing on this yearning for the past by “giving value to the land.”
While such lively pre-Hispanic ingredients have now crawled their way onto porcelain plates of ritzy restaurants, they have long been standard fare at more laid-back joints, such as Don Chon, in the capital’s blue-collar La Merced barrio.
“Everything that walks, flies or crawls goes into the pan,” said chef Fortino Rojas as he cooked an egg omelet with fly larvae. One of his creations is a mix of ant larvae with chrysanthemum petals and mango sauce.
But Rojas warns that such foods may not last much longer because environmental pollution is destroying their habitat.
Next to the city’s famed San Juan market, Pedro Hernandez sells bugs such as crispy grasshoppers that are eaten with garlic and olive oil or lime, as well as chunky maguey worms, which live off the agave plant, used to make tequila.
“We come here to buy them every rain season. We don’t miss the chance,” said Margarita Martin, a homemaker who bought live red maguey worms.
In June, Hernandez opened a restaurant, La Cocinita de San Juan, next to his shop where customers can try cooked insects or “buy the raw little critter and take the recipe home,” he said.
Nicole Olivares, a medical student, tried for the first time fried maguey worms on a bed of sopes — corn dough shaped in a circle. “They’re very good. They taste like meat,” she said.
Her lunch partner, high school teacher Miguel Diaz, said the Mexican palate has become “Westernized” and forgotten foods that “in addition to being tasty, are very nutritious.”
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization not only believes that bugs have nutritional benefits, it even suggested in a recent report that they can help combat hunger affecting 2 billion people worldwide. They can also act as an important supplement for children enduring malnutrition, the report said.
Gabriela Jimenez, an entomologist at National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the protein content of insects such as grasshoppers is double that of beef. “All insects have amino acid[s], which [are] essential for humans,” she said.
Jimenez said Mexico, which competes with the United States for the title of the world’s fattest country, will develop a bigger appetite for insects. “They are not fattening,” she said. “You can make flour with any insect.”