On the Table: Chapulines, Oaxaca’s Edible Insects
Those familiar with cuisine from Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca likely think of mole, cacao and mezcal as the region’s most distinctive foods. Less known to foreign palates—but no less integral to the regional cuisine—are chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers.
Contrary to the Western aversion to eating insects, they are part of the regular diets of roughly 2 billion people across the globe. Grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium have been a staple of Oaxacan diets since well before the Spaniards arrived. Chapulines continue to be enjoyed today as botanas (snack foods), toppings and main dishes, and are an indispensable resource for Oaxaca’s peasant communities.
Gathered from milpas (fields planted with corn, beans and other crops), chapulines epitomize field-to-table cuisine. Late spring rains herald the beginning of grasshopper season, which continues into early winter. Newly hatched chapulines, known as “nymphs,” are a special delicacy prized for the sweetness imparted by the nymphs’ alfalfa diet.
Mature chapulines prefer maize fields, where they are hand harvested early in the morning when the insects are dormant. Come mid-afternoon, when the chapulines become too active to be easily ensnared, the harvested grasshoppers are cleaned, then left to rest for several days without food to eliminate any waste in the insects’ systems prior to cooking. (Some small purveyors warn against eating chapulines seasoned with chiles, which they claim large-scale producers use to mask the taste of grasshoppers that have gone stale or were not rested before cooking.)
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To prepare this simple street food, the grasshoppers are first par-boiled in water seasoned with garlic and lime. The chapulines are then tossed by the handful onto a hot comal (clay stove) and toasted with a sprinkle of lime juice and salt. Once cooked, chapulines are often purchased by restaurants and served as an appetizer (followed by a shot of mezcal, in true Oaxacan fashion) or added to sauces, chiles relleños, tacos and other more complex dishes. But the typical way of enjoying chapulines right off the street is simply rolled in a fresh corn tortilla.
Both eaten at home and sold by street vendors (and even exported to homesick Oaxacans around the world), the importance of chapulines to rural communities cannot be overstated. Harvesting, cooking and selling chapulines provides economic opportunities for women and their families in a region where job possibilities are often limited. Moreover, peasant families have long subsisted on chapulines as a cheap source of protein.
Slowly catching up to peasant wisdom, international organizations are beginning to tout what families in rural Oaxaca have known for generations: insects are an easy and cheap source of food. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization launched a campaign last year to promote insect consumption as a potential solution for global hunger and food insecurity. Insects are nutritional powerhouses packed with protein and other essential nutrients. Furthermore, insects are significantly less resource-intensive than raising livestock,requiring far less feed, land and water.
While adding bugs to the menu makes good sense in a warming world of increasingly limited resources, it is unclear whether palates north of the border can overcome the “ick” factor. The emergence of American companies like Chapul, which offers energy bars made from crickets, suggest that tastes may be slowly changing. Until grasshopper grub becomes mainstream, perhaps that mezcal chaser isn’t such a bad idea.
- Jeffrey H. Cohen, Nydia Delhi Mata Sánchez and Francisco Montiel-Ishino. “Chapulines and Food Choices in Rural Oaxaca,” Gastronmica, Winter 2009.