Article by Barb Sligl originally published in the Atmosphere magazine. Read the latest edition here.
Snacking on Crunchy Chapulines (Grasshoppers)
There’s a crunchiness, almost like potato chips, and flakiness, like the slips of skin on fresh, shelled peanuts. And it’s almost easy to ignore the little prickly bits…the tiny legs of the chapulines.
I’m eating grasshoppers in Huatulco, Mexico. The chocolate-coloured insects still have their stick-like appendages, antennae and wings. They look just like what they are, bugs, but taste like salty and spicy chips, my favourite snack food. For someone with a savoury palate, one isn’t enough. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
I’ve ventured outside of the all-inclusive, beachside resort on one of Huatulco’s gorgeous, crescent-shaped bays to explore the town of La Crucecita just inland, and sample some infamous Oaxacan cuisine. Almost as far south as you can go in Mexico, the state of Oaxaca stretches from the sleepy and sunny resorts of Huatulco on the Pacific to the coffee plantations of the misty Sierra Madre mountains. It may be the second poorest state in the country, but there’s nothing lacking in its gastronomy, from chocolate to those chapulines. In a country that’s known for its food, Mexican cuisine has even been recognized by UNESCO with its Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, Oaxacan fare still stands out.
Like chapulines. Fried or toasted on a comal, the traditional clay griddle used throughout Oaxaca, the grasshoppers are spiced with chili, lime and garlic, and sometimes sal de gusano, a sour-and-spicy salt made from powdered worms. This popular snack and protein fix has long been part of Oaxacan culture, since prehispanic times. The chapulines are tasty on their own, but I’m shown how locals eat this treat. A piece of tortilla is slathered with thick mole sauce, over which chapulines are piled and topped with strips of Oaxacan cheese and gusano salt. All I need is a cerveza.
I settle for mezcal. The same store in which I try the grasshoppers also has dozens of varieties of mezcal, from the infamous and almost-cliché con gusano version with a worm or larva floating in it to one with a scorpion. Mezcal is Oaxaca’s version of tequila (as some people say, tequila is mezcal, but mezcal is not tequila), made from different kinds of agave or maguey like Espadín, and is surprisingly smooth and smoky, a sweet smokiness that comes from roasting the heart or piña of the agave plant in a pit dug in the ground. Varieties of mezcal range from younger joven to aged or “rested” reposado and even more aged añejo. The mezcal is served with thick slices of juicy naranjas or oranges and, again, that bright-red spice of gusano salt. Forget salt and lemon and tequila, which seem rather common now. I sip (you don’t shoot mezcal) a light-amber-hued reposado, a crema de mezcal that’s pina colada flavoured (there’s also cajeta or caramel and cacahuate or peanut), and then a darker, caramelly añejo. It’s my favourite. So I have another.
There’s a saying in Oaxaca: Para todo mal mezcal y para todo bien tambien. It basically translates to: when things are bad, have mezcal, and when things are good, also have mezcal, it’s the answer to everything. I might agree. A local tale also claims that if you eat chapulines, you’ll return to Oaxaca. Enough said. Another round of mezcal and chapulines, please.