By Ed Avis
Chapulines – grasshoppers – have been on the menu at Hugo’s in Houston for the past decade, says Chef Hugo Ortega. Ortega’s menu is full of authentic, upscale Mexican dishes, but the chapulines provide a Mexican culinary experience not often found north of the border.
Insects are an essential part of the diet in many parts of the world, and restaurants in Mexico and other Latin American countries regularly have insect-based dishes on the menu. The global market for edible insects will surpass $522 million by 2023, according to Global Market Insights Inc. That’s a lot of bugs!
A Natural Part of the Diet
Ortega explains that eating grasshoppers was just part of normal growing up in Mexico.
“For us it just came naturally, because every season there were different insects – with the rain in the summer there were always grasshoppers, which we collected in the alfalfa fields,” Ortega remembers. “In the later years, because of farming, it has become different. Now we have irrigation systems so you can find grasshoppers almost year round.”
Ortega buys the grasshoppers he uses for his chapulines directly from Mexico. They arrive dehydrated and already lightly seasoned with powdered chile de arbol. He sautees them in corn oil with roasted garlic and onions, giving them extra zip. The chapulines are served with salsa, guacamole, and small blue corn tortillas. The idea is for diners to make little tacos, with the grasshoppers providing the crunchy, nutty contrast to the smooth, cool guacamole.
“Sometimes we serve them with a tomatillo and chipotle salsa, sometimes with habanero sauce,” he says. “It just depends on the season and what we can get in the market.”
Grasshoppers have applications beyond tacos, Ortega says. They are sometimes added directly to salsas, and he has ground them into molitos (a mole with fewer ingredients). He also has mixed ground grasshoppers with salt to make the condiment taken with mezcal shots or used to rim the glasses of mezcal cocktails.
Grasshoppers are the only insects Ortega has on his menu, because he can get a consistent supply of them. But in Mexico, many other insects find their way to restaurant plates.
For example, ant larvae – escamoles – are a popular springtime protein in Mexico. They are nicknamed “Mexican caviar,” and are commonly sautéed in butter with garlic, onion and epazote, then served in tacos. They also can be blended into salsa and guacamole to add a nutty flavor.
“Escamoles typically appear after the first rains in spring,” Ortega says. “I have heard that they pass on the location of the ant nests through the generations – not just anyone can find them. For example, my grandfather knew where a nest was and every year he would go to the same area to find it.”
Another insect delicacy in Mexico is chicatanas, or flying ants. They are part of the cuisine in Oaxaca, where they appear in the spring and are gathered for salsas and moles.
“I have a friend in Oaxaca who has been providing me with coffee, peppers, spices and chocolate, and he brought me some chicatanas,” Ortega says. “I made a mole with them. It had a very distinctive taste.”
Tastes Like Sweetbreads
A more meaty Mexican insect is the maguey worm, which agave harvesters sometimes find among the roots of the maguey (Agave americana) plant.
“The maguey worms are quite meaty,” Ortega says, adding that they have texture of beef sweetbreads.
The worms are fried in oil with onions, then served with a tomatillo chipotle salsa or other type of salsa, he says. In Oaxaca, maguey worms also are sometimes mixed into salsas.
Crickets: Made in the America
One insect that can be more easily found in the United States is the cricket. At the Texas Restaurant Association Marketplace in Houston in June, a company called Aketta exhibited farm-raised crickets that are suitable for restaurant menus.
The crickets are a better source of protein and other nutrients than beef, the company explains on their website. Thirty grams of cricket contains 20 grams of protein, whereas 30 grams of beef only contains 8 grams of protein.
Aketta roasts the crickets before shipping to customers, so they can be used straight out of the package in tacos, salads, soups and other dishes.
Making flour from insects is another common way to take advantage of this food source. Grasshoppers, crickets, and some other insects are dry roasted, ground fine, and then mixed with regular flour to create a nutty-flavored flour that is suitable for tortillas, bread, or just about any other recipe calling for flour.
Waiting for the Season
The chapulines are a popular menu item at Hugo’s, Ortega says. The dish has probably introduced thousands of diners to a delicacy that Mexicans have enjoyed for millennia.
“It’s a way of life in Mexico,” he says. “You wait for the new season to start, and then you try the insects of the season.”
Ed Avis is the publisher of el Restaurante.