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A side dish of bugs, please

Taras travels to Mexico in search of sustainable food for the future

As the first lights of Mexico City became visible from the portside window of the Airbus A319, I was thinking about the prophecies of overpopulation that haunted my childhood. The most chilling of them were set out in The Population Bomb, a slender paperback that was a fixture on book racks in the 1970s. Paul R Ehrlich’s hastily written screed would prove to be one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

Inspired by Ehrlich’s book, advocates for ZPG – zero population growth – argued that diapers, cribs, and toys should be subject to a luxury tax, with “responsibility prizes” awarded to childless couples. The more zealous supporters of ZPG wore lapel buttons that read “Two Is Enough”. The movement saw birth control pills being scattered from helicopters in the Philippines, Indian men being rewarded with transistor radios for submitting to vasectomies, and the forced sterilisations of tens of thousands of impoverished women in Indonesia, Peru, Bangladesh and Mexico.

Ehrlich painted a haunting vision of poverty and hunger in India, but in the year that I was born, fewer than three million people lived in Delhi. At the time, Mexico City was more populous, and well on its way to becoming one of the world’s first megacities; it would hit the defining ten million mark eight years later, in 1974. By the beginning of the new millennium, when Mexico City’s population had nearly doubled again, it was being trotted out as a case study in cancerous urban growth, a dysfunctional dystopia where smog-choked birds dropped from the sky.

Thanks to the city’s sheer vastness, I had plenty of time to think about what was bringing me to Mexico City. According to Ehrlich and other neo-Malthusian Cassandras whose visions informed my youth, humanity’s locust-like voraciousness should have by now doomed our species to extinction.

Yet once again, our species was demonstrating its endearing capacity, when faced with new challenges, to soldier on and figure things out. According to Ehrlich, this far into the 21st century, we were meant to be swarming like insects. Instead, some of us were proving willing to adapt in a very practical way: by eating them.

Mexicans are said to consume 545 distinct species of edible insects, more than any other nationality. My goal was to find a restaurant that would serve me a delicacy enjoyed by Aztec royalty, long prized as the “caviar of Mexico”: ahuautle, made from the eggs of the water boatman, a tiny water strider whose fate turns out to be intimately entwined with the troubled history and challenging future of Mexico City.

It’s fitting that bugs may turn out to be our next supper, because they were one of our first. The earliest known proto-primate, the distant grandparent of every human now alive, was a mammal that lived 66 million years ago, at the same time as tyrannosaurs, triceratops, and pterosaurs. Purgatorius – imagine a squirrel, but with the proboscis of a rat – fed on sawflies, katydids, bees, and dragonflies that abounded in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the late Cretaceous. Our most ancient primate ancestor subsisted primarily on bugs.

For as long as we’ve been a species, hominins have derived significant nutritional benefits from consuming insects. The fact that so many people in high-income countries profess to be disgusted by the idea turns out to be a quirk of history – and a recent one, at that.

On 8 November 1519, Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlán. During their three-month march inland from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico, Cortés’s men crossed deserts, salt marshes, and snow-covered mountains.

In their prepared form, water boatman eggs could easily pass as some type of grain or fine cereal. PHOTO: RECETARIOLAGODETEXCOCO.ORG

What had allowed the conquistadors to vanquish fatigue and fear was their lust for riches. After arriving from Cuba, on the shore near what is now Veracruz, Cortés told an Aztec emissary, in one of the most naked giveaways of true intent in the history of colonialism, “I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.”

Their march had taken them past well-irrigated fields of corn and plantations of prickly pear cactus. But the Spaniards scorned agriculture, partly because they associated it with the Moors, who had undertaken impressive feats of irrigation that made large swaths of the arid Iberian Peninsula into a garden. As they rode along the five-mile-long causeway of hewn stone that led to Tenochtitlán, Cortés and his men saw cobbled streets lined with willow trees, aqueducts that brought fresh drinking water to the whitewashed villas of the rich, and steep pyramidal temples that rose fifteen stories. With a population of 200,000, the island-city was larger than any settlement in Spain. The Aztecs boasted accurate calendars, state-run education, zoos and botanical gardens, efficient waste-management systems, and a network of relay runners who transmitted messages from as far as present-day Guatemala at the rate of 200 miles a day.

Mexicans are said to consume 545 distinct species of edible insects

On their side, the Spaniards had arms, auspicious timing, and antibodies. They rode atop “hornless stags” and carried swords with blades of fire-hardened Toledo steel and deployed wheeled cannons whose balls could shatter trees into splinters. The Aztecs had formidable weapons of their own, including the macuahuitl, a massive club edged with razor-sharp obsidian, which could disembowel a horse with a single blow – provided they could get close enough to use it. When Cortés and Montezuma met in the sacred heart of Tenochtitlán that day, the emperor could have ordered the 400 or so Spaniards who had survived the march exterminated with a wave of his hand. They were surrounded, after all, by the 15,000,000 subjects of the greatest empire Mesoamerica had ever known. It was the Spaniards’ good fortune to have made landfall at the exact point in the 52-year Aztec century when Quetzalcóatl was prophesied to return from the east. The portent-obsessed Montezuma decided it prudent to welcome the newcomers, and he invited them to bivouac in the palace of his late father, Axayacatl. Looking for a spot to build an altar to the Virgin Mary, the Spaniards discovered a walled-off entrance to a hidden chamber filled with gold, silver, and intricate turquoise inlay. This was the secret treasure of Axayacatl, surplus tribute that had been delivered from the corners of the empire, and just as promptly sealed up and forgotten.

The Spaniards, who remained in Tenochtitlán for eight months, were clearly impressed by its great market, Tlatelolco, which could welcome 60,000 buyers and sellers at a time.

“They will eat virtually anything that lives,” Cortés marvelled. “Snakes without head or tail; little barkless dogs, castrated and fattened; moles, dormice, mice, worms, lice; and they even eat earth which they gather with fine nets, at certain times of year, from the surface of the lake… it is made into cakes resembling bricks…”. The “earth” Cortés described may have been the protein-rich blue-green algae known as spirulina. But some historians think he was referring to the eggs of the axayacatl, a Nahuatl word that means “water-face” and describes the bulbous, transparent eyes of an insect known as the water boatman.

It turns out the real secret of Axayacatl – son of the first Montezuma, father of the second – was not his hidden troves of gold and silver. It was the fact that he was named after a bug. The same lowly insect that, along with a few other protein-rich aquatic resources in the Valley of Mexico, allowed an obscure tribe of nomads to rise to the hegemony of one of the most impressive civilisations the New World has ever seen.

The Mercado San Juan Pugibet is the direct inheritor of Tlatelolco. After the conquest, the great Aztec market was relocated to the barrio of San Juan Moyotlan, where its stalls eventually occupied the buildings of a nineteenth-century cigar factory. Pugibet is where Mexico City’s top chefs now come to shop. Pugibet also targets tourists in search of the exotic. At one stall, I sampled cocopaches, which live in mesquite trees and spit iodine when attacked; ground into a salsa with sesame seeds and dried cranberries, they had a smoky crunch that suggested mesquite-flavoured potato chips. I stopped at El Gran Cazador, a stall notorious for retailing giraffe, antelope, and zebra. It also sells prey at the other end of the terrestrial food chain – a tour guide was handing out samples.

“In Mexico, we’ve been eating insects for all our history,” she said, as she offered a plastic scoop of chicatanas, the winged form of the leaf-cutter ant.

“For Mexicans, the ant is just like an M&M – except it’s got much more protein!”

Recent reports of a global “insect apocalypse,” while exaggerated by the media – it’s very difficult to drive any insect species to complete extinction – aren’t without foundation. Bee colonies are indeed collapsing, monarch butterfly numbers are in freefall, and pesticides and herbicides have driven down many ant and grasshopper populations in North America and Europe. In many nations, bugs are seen as a form of bushmeat, and as their prestige and price rise, so does evidence of destructive overharvesting in the wild. The edible insect whose abundance on Lake Texcoco had been responsible for the rise of the Aztec Empire, I was learning, was lately proving as hard to find as the lake itself.

When humans first arrived in what is now Mexico City, sometime after the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, they found the happiest of hunting grounds with the ancient Lake Texcoco, which attracted wild boar, rabbits, deer, waterbirds, and such now-extinct species as mastodons, camelids, and giant sloths.

The lack of large, domesticated herbivores (apart from llamas and alpacas in the Andean empire of the Incas) put the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas at a fatal disadvantage when invaders from overseas arrived. Since the early Neolithic, the people of the Old World had been living alongside their cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and goats, being sickened by, and adapting to, zoonotic microbes. As bearers of the pathogens for influenza, smallpox, measles, yellow fever, cholera, and malaria – diseases unknown in the western hemisphere before 1492 – the invaders initiated a hecatomb. In only a century after Cortés’s arrival, the Indigenous population of the Valley of Mexico was reduced from well over a million to a mere 70,000.

Between the teeth, the champoloco’s silky skin yielded a burst of beefy nuttiness

The source of ahuautle was proving elusive, but my dining experiences were showing me that edible insects were still part of the nation’s gastronomy. Shortly after the Conquest, Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún put together an encyclopaedia of Aztec culture, compiled with the help of Nahuatl-speaking informants; in it, he catalogued 96 kinds of insects used as food. All continue to be consumed in some part of Mexico, and many are still fixtures on the capital’s menus.

One afternoon I stopped at El Cardenal, a half-century-old restaurant that occupies three floors of a Parisian-style townhouse near the Zócalo. I watched with trepidation as a waiter set down a stack of handmade corn tortillas and my order: a clay casserole dish of segmented white worms, the kind you find sloshing around the bottom of a bottle of mezcal.

A champoloco, or maguey worm, is actually a caterpillar, the larva of a butterfly – the tequila giant skipper – that feeds on the stems and roots of the agave or maguey plant. In half a year, a single agave can produce 250 gallons of the sap known as aguamiel – “honey water” – which is then fermented into pulque or distilled into mezcal. Farmers have turned the pests into a bonus crop. At El Cardenal, an order of champolocos fried in vegetable oil cost over twice as much as the next most expensive appetizer on the menu.

Because of their high volume-to-surface-area ratio, many insects are excellent candidates for the Maillard reaction – the browning that occurs when free sugar molecules and amino acids combine at high heat – sought after by cooks when they baste a rotisserie chicken or sear a steak. Between the teeth, the champoloco’s silky skin yielded a burst of beefy nuttiness, like a well-browned sausage stuffed with almond butter.

The rise of bugs to star billing on the menus of Mexico City’s white-tablecloth restaurants turns out to be a recent phenomenon. Entomophagy, it’s true, goes deep into Mexico’s prehistory; archaeologists have analysed coprolites – fossilised faeces – and found evidence that people here were supplementing their diets with a substantial input of insect protein 8,700 years ago. But by the twentieth century, many in the Mexican middle and upper classes had come to see bug-eating as backward-looking. In recent decades, reclaiming pre-Hispanic roots has become a matter of pride: pulque bars, once reviled as sawdust-floored dives, now cater to the hipsters of Roma Norte and La Condesa, and the capital’s top chefs pride themselves on serving edible insects.

On the second-floor terrace of Azul, a restaurant in La Condesa, I ordered escamoles, a dish that vies with ahuautle for the title of the “caviar of Mexico”. Lightly sautéed in butter with finely chopped onions, green serrano chiles, and epazote – a herb that straddles a fine olfactory line between sage and turpentine – each glistening beige escamol resembled a dimpled pearl. A mouthful made me feel like tiny well-larded baked beans with delicate skins were gambolling over my tongue.

Escamoles are the eggs of a species of leaf-cutter ant, Liometopum apiculatum. The 3.5-ounce appetiser at Azul cost 325 pesos (£15), a price that reflects their scarcity and the challenges of harvesting them. Competition to supply Mexico City’s restaurants has led to destructive overharvesting.

“The problem with escamoles,” José Carlos Redon told me, “is the black market. The prices are so high that people gather them before enough ants have reached adulthood. They don’t think about the fact that the population has been decreasing for the last few years.”

I’d met Redon in the office of his delicatessen, Camilla, which specialises in traditional foods and liquors from the state of Hidalgo. His mother’s family still owns a farm-estate in the Valle de Mezquital (“Valley of Mesquite Trees”), just north of Mexico City.

“We have this little patch of land,” said Redon, “less than an acre, which is basically useless for farming. It’s semi-desert, kind of like the outback in Australia: everything there has spikes or can bite you. But for collecting insects, it’s great.” After training as a chef in Australia, Italy, and the United States, Redon returned to Mexico to set up one of the capital’s first food trucks, where he topped sopes, soft circles of fried corn dough with pinched-up sides, with insects from the family’s property, including cocopaches plucked from mesquite trees. “Younger people weren’t that attracted to the insects. But the older generations, you didn’t have to convince them. They knew we were selling them cheaper than any restaurant.” Though he no longer runs the food truck, his family still lets villagers harvest insects on their property.

“If you do it the pre-Hispanic way,” continued Redon, “it’s sustainable. The harvesters leave their home at five in the morning, walk seven miles, following marks on different plants that lead them to the nest. There’s no water, no shelter; it’s a very hot area. The ants live in the ground, usually next to maguey plants. Then they have to open the nest carefully to get to the larvae, without damaging it, or killing the plants.” For every 100 larvae a queen ant lays, only one will become a princess. “After it rains, the soil gets softer, and the princesses hatch. They fly up into the air, and then lose their wings. Where they drop to earth is where they start a new colony.” Each colony works on the principle of a dairy farm: leaf-cutter ants “milk” aphids, which excrete a kind of royal jelly they use to nourish the queen. If the colony is attacked or damaged, the workers actually pick up the aphids, along with the eggs, and move them to a safer location.

“You can only take a certain percentage of the eggs, though, or the population goes into decline.” Redon said his family has been trying to boost awareness of the issue in the communities surrounding their property, but the demand from restaurants has encouraged amateur poachers. “For local people, escamoles can be a big part of their annual income.” A nest can be harvested three times a year and continue producing larvae for up to 40 years. Destructive poaching, though, can destroy a 50,000-member colony in a single afternoon.

Redon is a founding member of the Mexican branch of Slow Food and has travelled the world with the team from the Future Consumer Lab, cofounded by René Redzepi, the chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, advocating for eating insects.

“A lot of chefs have realised that insects add these peculiar, exclusive flavours. But if we only take insects from specific areas of the world, like Mexico, we’re going to have a shortage. And if we bring it up to an industrial level, we begin to destroy ecosystems.” Many edible insects in Mexico have become unaffordable to those people – most of them Indigenous – who traditionally benefited from them.

A waiter set down a stack of handmade corn tortillas and my order: a clay casserole dish of segmented white worms

Mexican chefs were doing well to elevate insects, once maligned by middle-class diners, into the choicest items on the menu. Escamoles and maguey worms had awakened a craving, and I was curious to discover what else was out there.

It’s unfortunate that the most delicious, wild-caught bugs tended to be the ones most vulnerable to overharvesting. Redon agreed this was a problem, but added it wouldn’t stop him from encouraging visitors – gringos like me – from sampling ant eggs and ahuautle. These were the gateway bugs, the indulgences that could encourage people to look at sustainably harvested and farmed species as food to be enjoyed rather than pests to be exterminated.

According to the city maps, there is still a place called Texcoco, so I decided to go there myself to see what was left of the vast lake that had once been the heart of Tenochtitlán. Redon remembered buying olive oil from a woman who also sold ahuautle, which he thought she’d harvested herself. He thought she lived close to the shores of Lake Texcoco. Using Facebook, I made an appointment to come by Kasbah, in the rough-and-tumble neighbourhood of Chimalhuacán.

I took a long taxi ride, along traffic-choked roads that followed the course of ancient canals that had once been filled with Aztec canoes and barges, to the eastern part of the State of Mexico. Samuel Buendía Peralta was waiting for me in a hole-in-the-wall shop that retailed the products of his family’s business: plastic jars of table olives, bottles of olive oil and red wine, tamales stuffed with green olives, and soap and hand cream made with olive leaves. He led me up a narrow lane to the family home, whose garden was an agreeable jumble of carboys for oil and wine and bonsai-like olive tree saplings. Samuel introduced me to his father, Rosario Buendía, who invited me into an open-sided workshop area on the house’s ground floor, which was partly occupied by a boulder projecting from the hillside. A table had been set for a light morning meal: olive paste spiced with za’atar, green and black table olives, pita bread, and a bottle of sweet red wine, made from the family’s own grapes.

Escamoles are ant larvae and pupae found in Mexico. They are mainly eaten on their own but are also often added to salads, tacos, tortillas or served with guacamole. PHOTO: TRAVELFOODATLAS.COM

The table olives we were snacking on were from 450-year-old trees, which may have been among the first to be planted in Mexico, if not North America. Rosario pointed out that the road my driver had taken to get to Chimalhuacán was once the causeway the conquistadors had taken on their march into Tenochtitlán. In the sixteenth century, Franciscan monks from Spain had planted olive groves along the ancient Aztec road. There were over a thousand trees in the area, and the oldest of them still yielded rich harvests of Empeltre, Mission, and a large, meaty cultivar called Sevillana.

As we talked, Rosario’s wife, Margarita Peralta Gonzalez, brought us a plate of tortitas. I used a spoon to cut off a piece, and the marshy taste and crunchy texture were unmistakable: we were eating ahuautle, traditionally and expertly prepared.

“My grandfather, on my mother’s side, made his living off Lake Texcoco,” explained Gonzalez. “And before that, my great-grandfather. They would fish the mosquito, and its eggs, off the surface of the lake. They called the mosquito requeson. They would ship it to Veracruz, and the Europeans would buy it.” The dried adult water boatmen went to make food for pet fish and birds in Europe. She remembered her father going down to the lake to hunt ducks and gather ahuautle. “He would take leaves from the tule plant [a species of sedge] off the surface of the lake and shake them, and the eggs would fall off.” The eggs had to be harvested while they were still fatty enough to form into tortitas but before they hatched, typically 22 days after being laid. The trade in water boatmen, she said, had made the Gonzalez family one of the two or three richest in Chimalhuacán.

“But nobody makes a living off ahuautle these days. A few people still gather it, sporadically. The tradition has gone, because the lake is shrinking.” She pointed down the hill. “Before, the waters of the lake would have come all the way up to the foot of this mountain. But there’s no free access anymore. It’s surrounded by a fence.” A few locals gathered the eggs from small ponds that formed on parts of the former lakebed during the rainy season, from June to September; that’s where Margarita had gotten the ahuautle for our tortitas. This time of year, she told me, I wouldn’t find anyone gathering eggs.

Mexican chefs were doing well to elevate insects, once maligned by middle-class diners, into the choicest items on the menu

I looked back down the hillside and could make out the bluish smudge of a stretch of shorefront. This was Lake Nabor Carrillo, a 900-acre reservoir. This, then, was all that remained of the mighty Lake Texcoco. Its waters, which drew the first hunters to the Valley of Mexico and nourished the Aztecs, are the only reason there is a city here at all. And it is the management of these life-giving lakes, rivers, and aquifers that will determine whether Mexico City will have a future to look forward to.

I had to remind myself that the Aztecs themselves had never really disappeared. In Mexico, first meeting point of the Old and New Worlds, the sophistication and vigour of Indigenous society had permanently transformed the invaders, in a way that didn’t happen in New France, colonial America, or Patagonia. Far from wiping out Aztec culture, the conquistadors themselves had been conquered by it; their genes, languages, cuisines, and worldviews had mingled, producing a mestizo nation unique in the world.

Which was why the almuerzo prepared for me by Gonzalez was unmistakably Mexican. Five hundred years after the first meeting of the Spanish and the Aztecs, olives, tapenade, and red wine, a meal that Cortés would have relished, could still share the same table with pre-Hispanic ahuautle – a delicacy fit for Montezuma.

It turns out that Paul Ehrlich had been wrong when he predicted that the teeming cities of the twenty-first century would doom our species to famine and extinction. When The Population Bomb was published, Mexico’s fertility rate was 5.3 children per woman. Today it has reached 2.1, replacement level, a decline largely driven by urbanisation. Women who move from rural areas to cities, where education and contraception are more readily available, almost always have smaller families. The rate of population growth is slowing – a process that could eventually reduce the impact of human numbers on the wilds. Mesoamerican history may be marked by tales of civilizational collapse, but out of catastrophe came the stores of human ingenuity that created milpas, chinampas, and other sustainable methods of farming and soil enrichment, and found a way to skim sustenance off the surface of shallow waters.

I was leaving Mexico with a suitcase full of chicatanas, ahuautle, chapulines, and other tasty creepy-crawlies. At home, I’d be facing a challenge of my own: convincing my sceptical children that insects, far from being disgusting, are a plausible source of nutrition for the future.

Taras Grescoe is a Canadian non-fiction author. His latest book, “The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past” (Greystone Books), is out now

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