Mexico's Love of the Bug
Worms, crickets, stinkbugs, beetles…if you never visited a market in central Mexico, you might not realize that this country has something of an infatuation with insects. It’s a food tradition that has carried on since precolonial times: the Aztecs—and many other indigenous groups—ate a number of different insects, and continue to do so today. While that may sound disgusting to some foreigners, it actually makes perfect ecological and dietary sense.
Many insects infest crops, so by reducing their numbers (of which, in most cases, there is no shortage), we’re also preserving food staples. They also reproduce rapidly and in huge numbers, all while generating a fraction of greenhouse gases as compared to cows.
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN estimates that over a quarter of the world’s population eats insects as part of their regular diet. When you consider the nutritive benefits, it’s hardly surprising: high in energy, amino acids, omega–3 fats, iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc.* For all of our scientific knowledge and innovation, it seems that the West is missing out on something big.
One of the interesting things about insect consumption in Mexico is its link with Mictlan: the land of the dead. In Mictlan, the dead believe they’re eating regular food (beans, squash, corn, chiles), in they eyes of the living, they’re feasting on insects. Some beans are flies, other beans are beetles, cockroaches, or ants, and certain types of chiles are fleas, ticks, or caterpillars. The connection of the living with the dead is so strong that the food of the dead is reflected in that of the living. The chiltepín pepper means “flea chile” in Nahuatl, and chipotle is “tick pepper”. **
The most well–known edible insects these days are chapolines (crickets) and gusanos (agave worms), both of which we serve at El Refugio. Chapolines are typically dry–roasted and eaten plain like peanuts, or served in a taco (at last year’s Gastrovino Event we served tacos of chapolines with guacamole – it was quite the hit!). We also sprinkle sal de gusano (a mix of dried, crushed agave worms, chiles, and salt) on the orange slices we give out with mezcal flights. But if you really want to get to know the agave worm, you’ll need to try our newest mezcal from Guerrero.
Although we generally advise to steer clear of mezcals with a worm in the bottle (as nearly all of them are industrial garbage), we recently bought a papalote con gusano from one of our favorite producers in Guerrero. If you like our mezcal “El Don” you’ll appreciate this one. The maestro added the agave worms to the batch after distilling and let them sit for a month, which has changed both the color and flavor of the mezcal. That it’s so much better than a typical mezcal with a worm you’d find on the liquor store shelf is due to the artisanal production of the mezcal itself.
We hope to begin incorporating more insect power protein into our menu over the months. The main challenge is finding producers and harvesters to work with and shipping the product to Baja.
What do you think? Would you be up for an arthropodic tasting menu?
* Mishan, Ligaya. “Why Aren't We Eating More Insects?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Sept. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/t-magazine/eating-bugs-food-restaurant.html.
** Pérez Téllez, Iván, “Chiltepín & Chipotle: Condiments of the Dead”, Artes de Mexico: El Chile, Num. 126, p. 84, 2017.