The southern state of Oaxaca is best-known in Mexico for its delicious mole negro, a dark sauce made from chilhuacle negro chillies and eaten with chicken or turkey. But in fact, Mexico’s fifth-largest state is made up of seven different regions, each with its own ecosystem providing a huge variety of ingredients.
Among the region’s many gastronomic delights are a series of nutritious and delicious insects. The locals have been eating them for ages and now they’re top of the tourist agenda too. In the second of our five-part series on Mexico’s rich and varied gastronomy, we talk you through the four juicy bugs you must try. Squeamish eaters should look away now…
1. Chinicul or gusano rojo
The worm’s name comes from the Nahuatl chichitlico-cuilin (chilli worm) because of its red colour. The insect lives within the heart of the maguey (agave plant) region and can only be found during rainy season, which runs roughly from May to October. Since pre-hispanic times, the worm has been fried or salted and consumed in tacos, but locals also use it in sauces, as a snack, in tostadas or mixed with salt and served with mezcal.
A selection of Mexican worms
2. Chicatanas (flying ants)
Chicatanas are flying ants that are only found once or twice a year, at the beginning of the rainy season. As in the case of the red worm, chicatanas have been consumed since pre-hispanic times. In recent years, however, they’ve been adopted by top chefs like Enrique Olvera at Pujol, No.6 in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2014, who takes advantage of their delicious flavour and nutritional value. They’re served mixed with the salts accompanying mezcal, as a snack or in different dishes.
Baby corn, powdered chicatana ant, coffee and costeño chile mayonnaise at Pujol in Mexico City
3. Chapulines (grasshoppers)
Apart from the potent alcohol mezcal, chapulines (grasshoppers) are probably the most famous staple of Oaxaca state, and are commonly served with guacamole. These crunchy treats are often used as an appetiser or finger food at family gatherings and friendly get-togethers. Find them toasted with garlic, lime juice and salt or chilli.
4. Hormiga de miel (honeypot ants)
As the name suggests, honeypot ants collect and store honey inside their bellies, to be shared with other ants when food is scarce. To extract the stored liquid, fellow ants stroke the honeypot’s antennae until it regurgitates the precious honey. These insects are rare though, making them a true delicacy in Oaxaca, so diners lucky enough to get their hands on them shouldn’t hesitate to tuck in.
Mezcal tasting notes
Oaxaca is home to a variety of ancient drinks such as hot chocolate, made with water instead of milk, and tejate, a refreshing beverage made from corn and cacao. But undoubtedly the state’s most representative drink is mezcal, traditionally enjoyed with friends and family as it’s thought to bring people together.
For a long time, people thought the best mezcal was the oldest, or the one with a worm in the bottle. But experts actually recommend drinking young mezcal, straight. The absence of mixer allows people to taste and enjoy its earthy flavours.
Chef Alejandro Ruiz’s gastronomic guide to Oaxaca
If all this talk of juicy critters has whet your appetite, you might be planning your trip to Oaxaca. Alejandro Ruiz, head chef at Casa Oaxaca, puts the state’s culinary success down to the high standards of the locals. So we asked him to share the local favourites with us:
Mercado de Tlacolula
Galeana 2, Tercera Sección, Tlacolula de Matamoros, Oaxaca
Tlacolula market is located about 30km from Oaxaca city and is known for its main meeting hall. Meat is chargrilled in front of customers on anafre ovens, and highlights include tasajo (beef, usually wood-smoked), chorizo and cecina (salted, dried meat). Tasajos are also a tasty accompaniment for chapulines.
Cosijoeza 206 , Barrio la Soledad, Villa de Zaachila, Oaxaca
For 25 years, this family home has been opening its doors on Wednesdays and Thursdays, offering traditional Oaxacan cooking, including various home-grown products. Must-try dishes include buises, or pork fat fried with salt and garlic, served over a tlayuda – a large tortilla covered with ground beans and topped with lettuce, fresh cheese and tomato.
Calle Nezahualcoyotl esquina Escuela Naval Militar, Reforma, Ciudad de Oaxaca
Tucked away on a plain street under a red tent, this tiny place serves the best tlayudas in town – the only thing that gives it away is the huge crowd surrounding it.
Mezcal and tlayudas
Reforma 506, Centro Histórico, Ciudad de Oaxaca
For those who want to know everything about mezcal, the Mezcal-theque is the place to be. The experience starts with a brief history of the spirit and is followed by descriptions of its many varieties and finally a complete tasting.
Finally, chef Ruiz recommends molotes, a snack or antojito made with corn dough and filled with chorizo and potatoes. They’re fried and served over lettuce, together with salsa. Always get them from street vendors – the most crowded stand is always the best one!