By Julie Etra
My good friend Barry, who lives in Pluma Hidalgo, said I was palate challenged, an unadventurous eater, a false epicurean. Guilty as charged when it comes to eating insects and animal organs, but insects and their larvae are widely eaten in Mexico.
A pre-Hispanic dish, escamoles are ant larvae and pupae, also known as ant “caviar.” Sounds appetizing? When we met in Oaxaca City last winter, Barry and his wife Leslie sat down to a plate of this traditional delicacy, which they shared with my husband Larry. “YUM!” they all exclaimed, while I politely declined.
Escamoles are the edible larvae and pupae of velvethy tree ants. The larvae are harvested from the roots of Agave tequilana and Agave americana, common species of maguey in Mexico used to produce tequila and mezcal, respectively. Liometopum apiculatum ants are mostly carnivores and don’t impact the roots of the plants under which they nest. They also obtain nectar from yucca and agave plants.
The word “caviar” is a good indicator of the high cost and gourmet status of escamoles. They have been described as resembling corn kernels or pine nuts, and are purportedly crunchy when fried and ostensibly more appealing than other worm-like larvae associated with maguey and mezcal (we’ll get to them later). Escamoles are frequently prepared by pan frying with butter and spices with chilis, cilantro etc. (By the way, cilantro is native to Iran, western Asia and northern Africa; it made its way to Mexico via the Spaniards, and is indicative of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture – the Moors, from Morocco, ruled most of Southern Spain for 800 +/- years).
Escamoles are served in tacos and omelets or served alone, accompanied by guacamole and tortillas. How are they prepared? First wash them thoroughly to remove any lingering attached ants. Saute garlic, onion, and chilis, such as serranos, in butter, then add the escamoles with a bit of epazote. Epazote is quite strong, so be judicious with this herb. Fresh escamoles are only available seasonally in March and April and only in particular areas of Mexico. But not to worry! In case you cannot find them fresh, the canned version is available year-round.
Among the other insects commonly consumed in Mexico, most notably chapulines (grasshoppers) in the state of Oaxaca. They are usually roasted, often with lime and garlic. The following is another common preparation:
1 pound chapulines
½ cup oil (for frying)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 serrano chile, seeded and diced
½ onion, chopped
Dash salt (or to taste)
1 lime. cut into wedges
Remove the wings and legs of each chapulin.
Heat the oil in a shallow pan and sauté the garlic, chile, and the onions until the onions are translucent.
With a slotted spoon, remove the garlic, chile and onions from the oil and discard, leaving the oil in the pan.
Sauté the chapulines in the oil until they are brown and crispy.
Remove the chapulines and drain.
Sprinkle salt over the top, and then squeeze some lime over them.
They can be eaten alone as a snack, or in tacos. I have had them served in guacamole. Another recipe is to layer a clay casserole with Oaxacan cheese (quesillo), place a layer of prepared chapulines over the cheese, cover with a layer of quesillo, place the lid on the casserole, and cook for 3-4 minutes until the cheese has melted. Serve in a tortilla with your favorite salsa.
Red maguey worms are not worms, but the larvae of the Comadia redtenbacheri moth, which lays its eggs mostly at the base of the maguey leaves. The white eggs hatch into larvae, which go through several phases of development, turning pinker each time and boring into the maguey stems and roots to feed. In Spanish, the red maguey worms are known as chilocuiles, chinicuiles or tecoles. We’re probably most familiar with them because it’s one of the most popular gusanos to drop into a bottle of Oaxacan mezcal.
Upon maturity, before they turn into moths, the red maguey worm can be as large as 2.6 inches (65 mm). A 100-gram serving (just under a quarter pound) contains over 650 calories, While they are sometimes eaten alive and raw – ACK! – they are also considered delicious deep fried (with a taste and feel like crisp bacon) or braised, seasoned with salt, lime, chilis, and of course served in the ubiquitous and essential corn tortilla.
You, too, can participate in the culinary tradition of bugs (bichos were an essential part of the Aztec diet, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization sees insect protein as the answer to worldwide food insecurity). Up to 550 edible bugs have been counted on the city’s restaurant memos, whether as the bugs themselves (escamoles, flying ants, chapulines, and red maguey worms, not to mention deep-fried tarantulas and scorpions) or incorporated more subtly into sauces and seasonings.
Maybe you want to go to a show in New York City? At the time this was written, you could have dropped by the much-publicized and now annual festival put on by Brooklyn Bugs, an organization that promotes edible insects. The Festival is a high-end affair, with tickets for The Buzz, an Insectual Cocktail Party, at $65; Ento-Cooking demonstrations at $60; and a Bugsgiving Dinner at $99. The Late Night Bugout had lots of bugs to eat, accompanied by cricket-spitting and cockroach-racing competitions “and more buggery.”