Walking through a tianguis, a small street market, is always an interesting affair. The market sellers try to grab your attention by shouting “güero”, “gordo” or “flaco”, making direct and obvious references to the potential buyers’ appearance. The stalls buzz with whole families sitting down to enjoy a meal of barbacoa or goats meat in tortillas with nopales (cactus), before taking time to buy their household items or maybe some exotic fruits.
Last week, when I was passing stalls of brightly coloured peppers and strange vegetables, I saw baskets of what I thought were dried red chillies. But on closer inspection, they were grasshoppers and at 10 pesos a bag (around 50p) I had to give them a go…
Mexico has for many centuries, held a tradition of consuming insects which goes back to the times of the Aztecs. Expensive restaurants throughout the country now sell maguey worms (also found in expensive bottles of Mezcal and tasting like a mixture of bacon and peanut butter) and ant eggs (tasting a little nutty and sometimes known as the Mexican caviar) all now fetching a pretty penny as exotic food. What’s more, these bugs contain around ten percent more protein as the equivalent weight of beef. For very poor communities in Mexico, this factor can be very important making a potentially vital difference to the lives of malnourished people.
These days however, some people say we have a problem. As the global population increases, some theorists suggest that there will not be enough food nor water to go around for everyone. Could eating insects be an answer to this conundrum?
Doctora Ramos at the UNAM, an expert in the consumption of insects, even says that edible insects may one day provide a viable alternative to consuming animal livestock due to the higher efficiency of the consumption of protein, the necessity of fewer resources in their production and as a source of great economic and social security. 1Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions from insects are considerably lower than that of its larger livestock counterparts such as pigs or cattle.
I chatted with a friend of mine named Jorge who told me, “Yeah, you have to try these! They’re really good and really filling”. At this point, I wasn’t so convinced, remembering TV images of those disgusting edible bugs on game shows.
Until recently, Mexican farmers have spent a lot of money on pesticides to kill these creatures before realising what a lucrative market it could be. Now, many farmers grow cheap corn in order to trap the insects before harvesting them. In the Aztec times, the greatest pest control was eating the insects.
On the other hand, as the Mexican government does not recognise insects to be a really important food source and so is not included within the government’s biodiversity protection laws. While insects provide an almost limitless supply of protein due to their number, over exploitation of individual species has led to dramatic reductions in the number of certain species in certain areas as local people struggle to meet domestic and international demands. As insect eating becomes even more popular, more will have to be done to maintain biodiversity and sustainability in Mexican society.
So as I tucked into my bag of salted grasshoppers with lemon, I was surprisingly impressed. They were crunchy and tasted a little like the smell of potpourri. I ate the whole bag and was full. What a turn up for the books! I had tried a deep fried tarantula before in Cambodia and hadn’t really enjoyed that, but grasshoppers; I think I may have found my creepy crawly eating niche.
Now, I’m not recommending you eat any grasshoppers or insects you find on the living room floor of course! Many urban insects can be contaminated due to waste and parasites. Yet with more than a 1,000 insect species edible to humans world wide, I am sure you’re likely to see consumable insects becoming more commercially available in the years to come. If you don’t believe me you can Google the Wild Food School in Cornwall, which will even present a class on how to cook insects later this year. Or, check out Archipelago Restaurant in London which serves exotic meats and insects.2 The Zagat Guide 2010 gave the restaurant very favourable reviews!
With so many great nutritional advantages, being a renewable source and a rather interesting and not unpleasant taste, perhaps you’ll be seeing bags of worms, grasshoppers and beetles in the Durham market before too long. Just be careful with the legs getting stuck in your throat.
– Jack Little edits The Ofi Press, a monthly literary ezine, and also represents the Mexico national team at cricket.
1 Ramos Elorduy J. 1997. “Insects as a New Feasible Sustainable Alternative”, J. Ecology of Food and Nutr. 36: 247–276.