The Ultimate Edible Insect Travel Guide - Mexico

An essential travel guide for food enthusiasts, and a brief history of entomophagy in Mexico’s past, present and future.

Amy Gardner
Essentials
Aztec calendar illustration

There are moments in the life of any nation when treasured traditions from the past begin to make a comeback. These are moments when the past is embraced. In fact, at moments like this, the past becomes the future.

Nowhere can we see this more vividly than in the country of Mexico.

The indigenous people who lived in Mexico before it was colonized by the Spanish had their own culture, language, and cuisine. Marginalized by the ruling class, the native culture was condemned and shoved out of sight as backward and archaic.[1] Despite the obstacles, indigenous culture has persisted. Today, Mexican culture celebrates a rich and diverse heritage, and many indigenous traditions, which were once rejected, are now experiencing a resurgence.

Case in point: edible insects (Entomophagy).
mealworm illustration | by Crickster

Aztecs, Mixtecs, and other ancient peoples of Mexico considered insects to be an essential part of their diet. And with good reason: we now know that insects are a complete protein food. [2] And edible bugs are plentiful throughout Mexico; it harbors about 400 different species of them. [3]

But as a more elite ruling class evolved in Mexican cities, entomophagy was scorned as shameful, a sign of poverty.

These days, the pendulum of popular opinion is swinging in a different direction. In reaction to expressions of prejudice from their Northern neighbors, Mexicans are embracing all aspects of their national identity. And that includes edible insects.

Mexican chefs regularly concoct delicious meals and beverages, cooking up grasshoppers, crickets and ant larvae in creative ways. They incorporate them into traditional Mexican cuisine, cooking them up in tacos, adding them to guacamole, putting them in tequila.

Mezcal
Mezcal with agave worms

Edible bugs are still something of a novelty in urban areas of Mexico, and in some restaurants, may be very expensive.

But if you want to truly experience authentic Mexican cuisine, edible insects are a “must-try.”

The Best Places in Mexico to Try Edible Insects

You don’t have to search too hard to find delicacies cooked with insects. In fact, some Mexican chefs import their specialties to the US.

But if you happen to pay a visit to Mexico City, there are a few gourmet restaurants that have their own famous recipes for specific types of edible bug fare.

While any of these restaurants is definitely a splurge, it’s worth the treat, not to mention the cultural experience. And if you’re at all squeamish about your first experience with entomophagy, it helps to try dishes that were prepared by experts with five-star ingredients.

Pujol

Woman in Pujol Restaurant

This restaurant consistently earns a high ranking on the San Pellegrino list of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” and with good reason [4]. Legendary chef Enrique Olvera is known for a unique combination of traditionalism and creative flair. The menu offers the choice of a “corn-based” or a “sea-based” meal. Either one features an array of unusual and artistically presented food items. Plan well ahead of time if you want to eat here; getting a reservation is not easy.

Azul Condesa

Interior of Azul Condesa

Like Pujol, Azul Condesa also offers creative incarnations of traditional Mexican dishes. However, it is a more affordable option than similar restaurants in Mexico City.

Another perk: the beautiful ambiance, with indoor and outdoor seating and a picturesque balcony.

El Cardenal

El Cardenal takes pride in producing and crafting its own ingredients, giving it a special farm-to-table flair. Even their tortillas are made from corn that is grown and ground on-site.

Seasonal dishes are offered at various times of the year.

The ambiance, like the food, is old-fashioned and traditional.

Limosneros

This is the perfect place to try all kinds of exotic foods, as they are prepared with great imagination and care.

Located in the Centro Historico, Limosneros embraces its antique heritage. It was built in the 1500s from a collage of various stones, similar to the museums and religious buildings nearby.

Any of the restaurants here will be sure to make your first experience in entomophagy an enjoyable one.

But Mexican street food is also an excellent, low-pressure way to try some “chapulines” (grasshoppers) or “ahuatl” (water bugs). You can purchase them easily from vendors along the streets of Mexico City, Puebla or Oaxaca.

What Bug Should You Try?

With so many varieties of edible bug available here, you have plenty of options.

Here are some popular choices that are definitely worth a try.

Maguey Worms (“Gusanos de Maguey”)

Spiced Maguey Worms

These worms are most often found at the bottom of a glass of “mezcal,” a traditional alcoholic beverage. In fact, the maguey worm is seen as a mark of authenticity when placed in this drink.

The worm itself is a parasite which lives on the maguey plant, the source of the agave used to make mezcal and other traditional Mexican drinks.

The maguey worm can only be used when the plant is harvested, making them quite rare, as well as expensive.

Besides adding flavor and protein to your beverage, maguey worms can also be cooked up in quesadillas, tortillas and soups.

Ant Larvae (“Escamoles”)

Delicious Ant Larvae on a traditional plate

The larvae is harvested from nests far below the ground. They have an appearance similar to rice or pine nuts, making them slightly easier to picture as food than maguey worms or stink bugs.

With a short growing season, they are not easy to find and can be very pricey.

In fact, they are sometimes referred to as “Mexican caviar.”

In expensive Mexican restaurants, fried escamoles are a popular ingredient in tortillas, tacos, guacamole, soups and stews.

Grasshoppers (“Chapulines”)

Grasshoppers ("Chapulines") sold on Mexican food market

This is probably Mexico’s most popular and plentiful edible insect, especially along the streets of Oaxaca. Grasshoppers abound among the maize and bean and squash plants which provide so much of the basis of a typical Mexican diet. For that reason, rural people have been catching them in the fields and eating them for centuries.

Chapulines are often consumed as a traditional bar snack. Typically, they are fried and then seasoned with chile, salt and lime. They also make a nice addition to soups.

This crunchy snack packs as much protein as a serving of salmon.

Just be careful that their legs don’t get stuck in your teeth.

Stink Bugs (“Jumiles”)

Stink Bug

Unlike the other bugs mentioned in this list, “jumiles” are usually consumed whole, simply for the sake of convenience, because they are able to live for a long time after they are cooked or beheaded.  Yes, it’s true that this may require some bravery on your part. When you take a bite, you will probably feel them running around inside your mouth, and the odor they give off may gross you out a little. But if you can get past that, stink bugs are actually a tasty delicacy. Their strong flavor has been described as a mix of mint and cinnamon.

To get the full cultural experience, check out the Stink Bug Festival which occurs in the Mexican state of Guerrero on the Monday after Day of the Dead. [4]

One interesting fact: stink bugs have natural painkilling properties.

Winged Ants (“Hormigas Chicatanas”)

Corn mayonnaise with Chicana ant, coffee and coastal chile
Corn mayonnaise with Chicana ant, coffee and coastal chili served in Pujol

There are many varieties of ants in Mexico, but this giant flying ant is a delicacy throughout Mexico.

As they fly away from their large nests in spring and early summer, adults and children alike have fun chasing and harvesting them.

When prepared for eating, legs, wings and heads are removed. The Chicatanas are toasted or pan-roasted. Because of their huge size, they are often ground up in a paste, instead of eaten whole.

Methods of Preparation

If you can’t make it to Mexico, you can still enjoy edible insects the Mexican way.

For example, if you want to try maguey worms, but you’re not yet ready to commit to swallowing one of them whole, you can make a tasty gusano powder by grinding them up with chiles and salt. The powder makes a unique addition to a drink like tequila or mezcal.

Likewise, if you are not yet completely sold on escamoles, start by trying them in homemade salsa. After cleaning the ant larvae, add it to a mix of roasted Serrano pepper and garlic cloves along with half an onion, and then fry it all up together.

To make “chapulines,” simply sauté them in oil, garlic, chile and onions (after removing their legs and wings, of course.) Once they’re crispy and brown, set them on a paper towel to drain; then sprinkle salt and lime juice over them. They can be served on their own, or added to a taco.

As for jumiles, the best way to try them is in tortillas. Simply grind them up with a mortar and pestle, add some salt, and mix them in with some guacamole.

For winged “chicatanas,” expert chefs from Oaxaca recommend making them into a sauce by first toasting them, then grinding them up along with toasted avocado leaves, chile peppers and garlic [5].

So as you can see, even if you don’t love the idea of trying edible insects, Mexican cooks have evolved many strategies to prepare them in an appealing way.

Why Do Mexicans Eat Insects?

Illustration of a Mexican guy asking: "Por que no?" (Why not?)

As we mentioned before, the tradition of entomophagy in Mexico started in pre-Columbian times with the Aztecs and the Mixtecs. The reasons were simple: insects were plentiful, convenient and satisfying. The ancient people knew that insects were an efficient source of fuel for their bodies.

And with more insect species than any other part of the world, there really was no reason not to eat them.

Now, this formerly disgraceful element of Mexican culture is being embraced and celebrated. It is a foundational element of the Mexican way of life.

Here are just a few of the benefits of consuming edible insects.

  • Fights obesity
  • Higher food conversion efficiency than meat (easier to grow for the same amount of nutritional value)
  • Combats malnutrition
  • Insect production leads to fewer greenhouse emissions

As time passed and Mexico became more urbanized, there was a sharp divide between the indigenous rural people and the elite city dwellers. During this period, the poorer classes ate bugs simply because they were inexpensive. But entomophagy was frowned upon by more upscale urban folks.

Who Is Eating Insects in Mexico Now?

If you visit Mexico nowadays, you may perceive entomophagy as something “exotic.” And in fact, it’s presented to tourists that way. Even to local Mexicans who live in a city, separated from nature, edible insects are still considered a novelty.

And yet, entomophagy is an integral part of Mexico’s past as well as its future.

Today, with our advanced knowledge of nutrition, people are much better informed about the health benefits of entomophagy. With this knowledge, edible insects have become “trendy” in Mexico and in other parts of the world.

These days, people of all social classes enjoy insects as part of their diet, especially in southern regions like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Hidalgo, Puebla and Yucatan. The only difference is that the wealthy now enjoy these meals as delicacies carefully prepared in five-star restaurants. But for most people, they find and cook insects where they can.

So if you do get a chance to visit the southern regions of Mexico, it’s the perfect opportunity to get started on your own entomophagy journey.

After all, it was good enough for the Aztecs and it’s good enough for Mexico’s socially elite.

So it’s more than good enough for the rest of us, too.

Now, I'd like to hear from you... Where did you have your peak culinary experiences and what did you eat?

Let me know in the comments and be the inspiration for our next article 😉

Keep reading

Sources:

  1. Stavenhagen, R. (1994). The Indian Resurgence in Mexico. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, 18(2), https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/indian-resurgence-mexico.
  2. Akhtar, Y and Isman, M.B. Insects As an Alternative Protein Source. (2018). Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, p. 263-288. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-100722-8.00011-5.
  3. Grose, R. (2017 March 14). Edible Insects In Mexico. Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/mexican-food-edible-insects-4129391.
  4. Sutton, S. and Canavan, H.D. (2018 June 19). The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018: The Full List of Winners. Retrieved from: https://www.eater.com/worlds-50-best-restaurants-awards/2018/6/19/17475404/worlds-50-best-restaurants-2018-list-winners.
  5. Rigg, S. (2017 June 9). A Sauce Made From Flying Ants. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170608-a-sauce-made-from-flying-ants.