Crispy Critters

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

February 1990By Comments

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, may be special-ordered, and he also likes to work with roses and tuberoses. One of his earliest creations was armadillo a la financiera, cooked with cognac and white wine, back in the days when he got whole ’dillos shipped from Guerrero. He can also whip up wild boar in pine-nut sauce, but even that is fairly genteel next to some of his special-order dishes. If, for example, you have a “well-nourished” family cat that you wish to eat, Rojas will cook it for you in a thick salsa adobada (a highly seasoned sauce) or in red wine “or however the person wants it—it tastes like rabbit,” he says.

So far, Rojas has had qualms about only one dish. Last year he told Contenido, a Mexican monthly, that he was “moved” and could not watch as he cooked a two-kilogram monkey a client had brought him. “It had the face of a baby,” he explained. “It gave me pain to see its little skull. I served it by the piece—a little arm, a little leg. I never tried it.”

A rotund, 48-year-old bachelor with limpid brown eyes and a few strands of white in his jet-black hair, Rojas comes from a campesino family of eighteen. He was born in Los Reyes de Juárez, in the state of Puebla, but his godparents took him to Mexico City when he was five years old. He began selling spices on the street, then moved up to tomatoes and onions; he did so well that he dropped out of school halfway through the first grade to attend to his thriving business. At fifteen, he began cooking in restaurants, and he has been cooking for the owners of Don Chon or the restaurant that preceded it for 28 years.

Ten years ago Rojas conceived the idea of serving traditional pre-Hispanic cuisine. Aztec food wasn’t entirely new to him; in his youth he had enjoyed an occasional glass of iguana blood. (“You mix it with sherry,” he says with a chuckle. “You get a rush immediately after drinking it, but you don’t taste the blood.”) But basically, he is a self-taught Aztec chef. “I just through that because people go to the same restaurants all the time, they would want something different,” he recalls.

Some of his dishes—venison, cabrito, rattlesnake, wild boar, armadillo—are not strictly Mexican; they can be found on menus in numerous restaurants in Texas and the Southwest. Even his more exotic game is not always what purists would call Aztec food but his own variation. (In a most untraditional move, he recommends that the food be washed down with orange soda pop.) But the bugs are the real thing.

Insects are eaten in rural areas of the world almost everywhere except the U.S. and Europe. Indians in the Southwest, including Texas, relied on them for sustenance, and today rural Mexicans consume about two hundred species of beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and other insects, according to Eugene DeFoliart, a University of Wisconsin entomologist who publishes The Food Insects Newsletter. (DeFoliart’s own tastes run to wax-moth larvae. “It’s a hairless caterpillar about one inch long. You deep-fat-fry it about forty-five seconds, dip it in salt, and it tastes just like bacon.”) DeFoliart argues that insects are high in protein as well as in important vitamins and minerals, especially iron, and he thinks that insects are a lot better for you in general than, say, beef.

In Mexico, food insects have begun to attract the attention of a few people in government, as well as such influential researchers as entomologist and biologist Julieta Ramos Elorduy de Conconi, who in 1982 published Los Insectos Como Fuente de Proteinas en el Futuro (“Insects as a Source of Protein in the Future”). One cookbook on Aztec food has been published, and insect recipes have turned up in various other books. But Rojas snorts derisively at the notion that the state should encourage a return to traditional Indian foods.

“It’s not the food of the future, because it’s so expensive. Before, it was the food of the poor people, but now it is the food of the rich,” Rojas points out. “It takes a long time to fix these things. And do you think a common worker could bring his family in here to eat at these prices? Poor people used to be forced to eat worms. Now they can sell five kilos of them for seven or eight hundred thousand pesos and buy rice and beans for a year.”

The restaurants are every bit as pricey as he suggests. At Mexikatessen, my lunch of jumiles, chapulines, gusanos de maguey, and escamoles came to 80,000 pesos, just over $30 at the then-current exchange rate. (The servings are large enough to feed two as an appetizer or one as a main course, but bugs are not very filling.) At Don Chon, the prices for insect dishes are similar, and the exotic meats are higher.

Part of the high cost can be traced to the seasonal availability of the insects. Fresh maguey worms are obtainable only two months of the year; restaurants fry them up all at once and freeze them. Rojas pays about 150,000 pesos (just over $56) for a kilogram, out of which he gets four generous servings. Likewise, jumiles can be caught only during a few weeks in the spring and fall (when they are greeted in Guerrero with a spectacular festival that includes the crowning of the new Jumil Queen). Escamoles come from black-ant colonies found only in caves in Hidalgo and sell for about 150,000 pesos a kilo.

The game animals are even more difficult to obtain. Most go on and off the endangered-species list, and even if they could be raised in captivity, they would taste different. So all Rojas can do is watch as his menu grows smaller.

Still, the man is a dreamer, and his current dream is to prepare an elephant trunk or ears, which he claims are the only parts of the animal that are digestible by humans. He would cook it in a white wine sauce with mushrooms and olives, and he believes it would be delicious.

It probably would be—but it would still be a one-shot dish. The bugs, meanwhile, are forever. Bueno. But hold the escamoles.

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