Crispy Critters

“An order of grasshoppers and hold the sauce.” Adventuresome Mexico City diners rediscover Aztec cuisine.

Soup’s on. Well, it’s not really soup, though it is soupy. It’s a bowl of escamoles—black-ant larvae—which look like small soybeans, floating in a pool of butter sauce flecked with onion, cilantro, and a few adult black ants swirled in for good measure. To eat them, you roll them up in a tortilla. The taste is sort of bitter and vegetably, maybe like cauliflower consumed a day too late.

Escamoles are one of the staples of Aztec cuisine, currently a minor food fad among roots-conscious Mexico City bohemians, intellectuals, and showfolk. Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari has dined at Fonda Don Chon, the city’s premier restaurant for pre-Hispanic cuisine, as has former U.S. ambassador John Gavin. The mayor of Mexico City lunches there frequently with the publisher of the daily newspaper La Jornada . Other regulars include singer Lola Beltrán and the head of Churubusco, the nation’s top film studio. Irma Serrano, the retired soft-porn starlet known as La Tigresa who is said to have been the lover of former Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, stops by whenever she’s in town from her Yucatán hideaway. Now a successful businesswoman, La Tigresa removes her fake fingernails, lines them up neatly on the edge of the table, and corrals the entire meal with her hands.

Besides the escamoles, spread across the table before me at Don Chon are other delicacies, such as gusanos de maguey (maguey worms), chapulines (fried grasshoppers), hongo de mais (corn-ear fungus), and iguana in pipián sauce. Don Chon’s longtime chef, Fortino Rojas Contreras, is completely out of jumiles, however, which is probably just as well. Jumiles are large black field chinches. Like the ant larva, they are rolled into tortillas before being eaten. The difference is that jumiles are traditionally consumed alive. If the diner is not quick enough, the chinches escape the tortillas and flee across his face. On a more typical day at Don Chon, happy campers can be seen brushing wiggling jumiles down their cheeks and into their mouths. Jumiles are also pounded together with avocados to make guacamole or with tomatillos for a relish. The idea of insects as cuisine shocks most Americans, but in Mexico, poor people have always eaten selected bugs. Once you get used to the idea, a plate of grasshoppers is no more outlandish than a plate of chitlins. It’s all soul food.

The fad status of Aztec cuisine notwithstanding, only a handful of places in Mexico City cater to the roving insectivore. Several restaurants serve bug dishes, but for serious experimentation, the first choice is Don Chon (Calle Regina 159, 522-2170 or 542-0873), which is located on a street of novelty and paper shops a few minutes southeast of the main square. The other main purveyor of insects is Kino Mexikatessen (Campos Eliseos 363-A, in the Polanco neighborhood, just north of Chapultepec Park, 540-5970), which features traditional Aztec dishes as part of its regional deli concept. At Mexikatessen, jumiles are available this early December afternoon. The bugs are first boiled, then grilled with a little salt. Even so, they are very ugly—the only time I wondered what I was doing here was when the plate of jumiles was put before me. But they tasted innocuous enough: mild and grainy, reminiscent of popcorn kernels that didn’t pop.

Probably because of its more upscale decor, Mexikatessen gets much of the tourist trade. The waiters wear black bow ties, the orange walls are covered with art, and Muzak fills the rooms. The neighborhood regulars come to lunch in long dresses and shiny black leather jackets, and according to co-owner Maria Luisa Rebling, the restaurant also attracts adventurous French, German, Canadian, American, and Japanese tourists; the last, she swears, usually take pictures of their food before eating it.

“At first it was hard to teach even the Mexican people what we were doing, but now after five years we are starting to see people interested in eating this food,” Rebling says. “It is in style, and they are curious. And if I should say, we have finer things than they have at Fonda Don Chon.” Maybe so. One Mexican magazine gingerly described Don Chon as “unpretentious.” But that restaurant is still the favored spot for eating bugs (Don Chon’s owners are planning to open another restaurant with a similar menu this spring), and chef Fortino Rojas is still the Paul Prudhomme of this trend.

If Rojas has a specialty, it is his worms (actually butterfly larvae from the maguey plant, the basis of tequila), which he double-fries until they are plump. Eaten alone or in tortillas smeared with guacamole, the reddish-brown worms taste rather like nutty pork cracklings; you could probably throw some into a bowl of trail mix at a party and nobody would notice. Rojas’ customers also favor the russet-colored grasshoppers, which are caught in huge nets and then purged with lemon juice. Rojas pan-fries them in olive oil with more lemon juice and lots of salt. Like the worms, they are munchies, served more for texture than taste, although the grasshoppers are moist and tart on the tongue.

Fortunately for the squeamish, insects are not the only thing on Rojas’ menu. The corn-ear fungus—as rich and flavorful as marmalade—is served like quesadillas, on tortillas with melted white cheese. Rojas also offers wild game, although since a big fire in the forest area of Quintana Roo last August, such staples as deer, boar, raccoon, puma, and tepezcuintle (the paca, an edible rodent known also as “Aztec dog”) have been put on the endangered-species list by the Secretaria de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecología. Even armadillo is hard to come by these days. The only game I tried was iguana, which was gamy and naturally salty and came in a vibrant pipián of mashed squash seeds spiked with a purée of serrano peppers and other green vegetables.

Rojas takes pride in being able to cook almost anything. Chrysanthemums stuffed with baby eels and deep-fried, then covered in almond sauce,

Tags: FOOD

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