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"Aztec" cuisine breeds gourmet taste for rare bugs

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MEXICO CITY -- The growing popularity of "pre-Hispanic" cuisine has driven up demand for exotic insects -- a taste that may be spreading beyond Mexico.

MEXICO CITY – Ant larva, wild boar, fly eggs, wild greens: It's a meal to make the Aztecs proud.

"Pre-Hispanic" cuisine, which celebrates native Mexican ingredients and preparations that existed before the Spaniards arrived, has been enjoying increasing popularity at home and is shaping up to become Mexico’s next cultural "export."

Although exotic elements of pre-Hispanic cuisine have been a feature of top restaurants in Mexico City for more than a decade, chefs say the national appetite for hard-to-find delicacies is growing. Meanwhile, an artist-turned-chef in San Francisco, originally from Mexico City, is betting that health-conscious Americans are ready for bug tacos.

At Restaurant Chon, a downtown hideaway for pre-Hispanic cuisine in Mexico City, Chef Fortino Rojas serves plates of escamoles (ant larva), chapulines (crickets) and jabalí (wild boar), among other proteins favored by early Mexicans. He describes the food as "simple but with an Aztec flavor."

Once derided, insects have become a symbol of exclusivity. Chefs catering to diners willing to pay for luxury will search high and low for the most sought-after species.

While insects are a striking feature of pre-Hispanic food, the cuisine encompasses a broad range of vegetables, legumes and game – many of which serve as the base of traditional Mexican cooking, including corn, chile and beans, as well as seeds, herbs and flowers. Meats that are considered "pre-Hispanic" include venison, duck, boar, armadillo or a squirrel-like rodent called tepezcuintle.

Chef Daniel Ovadía, 28-year-old owner of the upscale Paxia restaurants, sees a movement afoot, especially among a younger generation. Young Mexican chefs are rediscovering the ingredients and preparations endemic to their home regions.

"That didn't happen before," he said. "Now the idea is to bring it to contemporary Mexico and to the world."

"They say that the food of the future will include a lot of insects," said Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, chef-owner of Mexican restaurants Azul and Azul y Oro. "But thankfully Mexico's insects aren't so well-known."

Although he touts the healthfulness of protein-rich edible bugs, Muñoz Zurita doesn't use native insects in his restaurants due to the scarcity and the cost. The combination of depleted supply and increased demand for pre-Hispanic foods like gusanos de maguey, white worms that feed on the leaves of a maguey that grows as tall as a man, or acociles, tiny native crayfish, make them pricey by default. That makes heavy commercialization unsustainable, said Muñoz Zurita.

Ovadía adheres to a sort of "slow food" approach, in which chefs create new demand for ingredients that, in an era of industrialized agriculture, would be otherwise headed for extinction. Ovadía supports growers of tamarillo, a type of tree tomato, and tamalayota, a type of squash.

Ovadía is not a pre-Hispanic purist, however. With ports in the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, Mexico has always been a crossroads, he said. The Spanish introduced cows to Mexico, and who could imagine Mexican food without cheeses and creams? Who could imagine Mexican salsa without cilantro, which comes from Asia?

An appetite for the exotic may be crossing the northern border, too.

In San Francisco, Mexico City native Monica Martinez is working on a taco cart concept called Don Bugito, making food that is "pre-Hispanic influenced and inspired with ingredients from the Bay Area."

"Most people know tacos and burritos," Martinez said. "So I thought, why not? It's such an amazing type of cuisine, and it hasn't gotten the recognition outside of Mexico."

When people approach the cart, some are shocked, she said. "But people after the first bite are like, 'Oh my god this is amazing.'"

Two popular items on Don Bugito's menu: waxworm larva tacos with pasilla pepper, and vanilla ice cream topped with caramelized worms and prickly pear syrup.

Photos:
Crickets by Flickr/William Neuheisel
Ant larva by Lauren Villagran

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure