Crazy for Crickets
Have you ever eaten crickets? In the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka), it's commonplace. Oaxaca is a region with a strong culture that extends into the neighboring states of Guerrero, Puebla, Veracruz, and Chiapas. The lush green Sierra Madre del Sur mountains stand tall and proud, as if shouting "we are here, we've always been here." Both in the artsy capital city of Oaxaca and in Tierra Negra, chapulines, or fried crickets, are a highly nutritional, protein-rich element of a well balanced diet.
Oaxaca is also home to the Zapotec and Miztec peoples, the original inhabitants of the region. They speak their unique languages and maintain their ancestral traditions -- including the eating of crickets. Something unique is in the air in Oaxaca.
Tierra Negra - tiny girl, jumbo cricket
Paulino is a farmer who enjoys spending his free time lounging in a hammock, nursing juicy watermelon and chomping on tasty chapulines. He often spends Sundays with his family of six and their countless animals. They live in Tierra Negra, a small farming community of 13 families on the outskirts of Tehuantepec, southeast of Oaxaca City.
Paulino and his friend David were quick to offer their hospitality, handing me a huge slice of watermelon and a seat in the shade. Paulino's five-year old daughter Daniela was also quick to share, however I could not accept her offer. Her face may have been porcelain pink and her smile a ray of sunshine, but her little hand was filled with enormous chapulines! "This one's for you," she said while gesturing for me to take one. I thanked her but politely declined. She had quite a chuckle and was curious to discover that I didn't eat them on a daily basis.
Oaxaca - a leg up
Wandering around in the central market of Oaxaca led me to many assorted chapulines sellers. Through the exotic sweets and spices, past the chicken feet and pig heads, just after the edible flowers and beyond the livers, a heavyset Zapotec woman draped in vibrant colored cloths appeared planted on a small bench. That corner of the market was hers and other chapulines vendors took heed.
She professed "my chapulines are the best in the market. I fry them in oil and lemon juice and cook them just the right amount of time." She sells three cricket sizes: small, medium, and jumbo. "Are they easy to catch?" I inquire. A Oaxaca-native, born and raised in a Zapotec farming community just outside the city, she nonchalantly replied "but of course, they are everywhere in the countryside."
"Try one!" she proclaimed, outstretching her mighty
cricket-filled hand towards me.
I almost did. |
Proud of this culinary tradition which has been passed on for centuries in her household, she wants to share it with others. She is very convincing and charming so I bought one bag -- 20¢ worth. Approximately 30 fried crickets in a clear baggie. Actually, the idea of just poppin' the cricket and chewing it leads me to frightful memories of the few and far between encounters I had with insects growing up in Los Angeles. Eating insect treats is as unfamiliar to me as eating fresh dove meat on a farm in Southern Arizona or live locusts on a hot day in Western Kenya. Which is to say, a far out challenge.
However, when travelling, I am intent on respecting the local cultures by listening and tasting, which is why I carried that plastic bag of medium-sized chapulines all around town. Luckily, my friend Anthony had no problem crunching one on the spot so it took the heat off of us being classified as fearful foreigners. Just the idea that I was walking around with fried crickets in my hand was enough to nearly give me a heart attack. Yet I pursued.
By the end of a full day of exploring charming Oaxaca, Mexico, the time had come to face up to the crunchy critters I had traveled with all day. The local tlayuda would be a perfect way to do the deed. The tlayuda is a Oaxacan specialty consisting of a 12-inch tortilla on a giant plate with heaping handfuls of meat, lettuce, beans, and string cheese, much like an open-face burrito or a mini Mexican pizza. I persuaded a local restaurateur to hide a few chapulines in my tlayuda.
Even so, the mind can be a powerful foe. My inside voice kept screaming "watch out, there are crickets in there! Don't do it!" And I'll be darned, after what seemed like hours of staring at my plate, I ate a few legs and was quite pleased. Hey, we all start somewhere!
Recipes for Cooking Crickets - Could It Be? The most diffused recipe seems to be frying crickets with garlic, salt, lime juice, and a hint of red chili powder. The smallest crickets are the most sought after, perhaps because they are the hardest to catch. The truth is most people eat them in Oaxaca as a snack, not as an entrée. Cool variations exist too, even chocolate cricket cookies baked by culinary Van Goghs. After all, chocolate originated in this region of the world as the Aztec's divine nectar -- bittersweet, dark, and often cooked with corn and grains. However, catching the crickets, that's up to you.
Show Me My Crickets
If you're not keen on catching and frying crickets and have made peace with your inner "Jiminy" conscience, swing by Oaxaca for a crunchy, punchy, yummy lunchy. Delve into the local delicacy, legs and all! They say eating chapulines means one will return to Oaxaca. I now have a crazy cricket mission for my next visit there -- eating the body.