It takes a special kind of person to respond with bright enthusiasm to a request for an order of gusanos de maguey, but, hell, he may have thought it takes a crazy sort of person to make such a request so far away from southern Mexico. But perhaps years of Anthony Bourdain/Bear Grylls all-day beer-accompanied marathons have finally gotten to me.
I decided to ignore the years of bias against some of the stranger culinary traditions of my home country, and bite into a worm.
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Or larvae to be exact. The red larvae of the Hypopta agavis, known in Spanish as gusano de maguey, chinicuil or tecol, a larvae that burrows into and eats away the heart of the agave, fattening up and waiting to hatch. In pre-Columbian times, this was the food of emperors; nowadays, it is perhaps just as rarefied and consumed at high-end restaurants in Mexico City and southern Mexico, due to its high cost and growing scarcity.
Presented with a small bowl filled with salt, ground seasoned chiles, and two small red larvae, the presence of this tiny bit of protein was disturbing; the salt and ground chile clinging to them, accentuating their delicate ridges. They looked so awfully living still, seeming as if they would squirm away when sprinkled with a bit of lime juice from the wedges paired with them.
Had I not known they are mostly eaten lightly sauteed (while still squirming of course, and yes! they plump when you cook them!), I would have fully thought they were still alive, despite being far from the heart of an agave. This is the point in the story in which sucking it up, getting over years screwing up my face and thinking gusanos, gusanos, gusanitos . . . and not being able to get over the apparent grossness of the food, have to be let go.
Or I could walk away from the tiny challenge like a culinary coward. I don't think so . . . I've eaten White Castle. Clearly, I've put worse things in my mouth.
With a splash of lime, and a swift scoop of salt, ground chile, and two tiny and terrifying larvae, down they went, chewed once or twice -- and I experienced nothing worse than a spicy salt kick with a small, decisive yet completely inoffensive crunch. I may as well have bitten into air, yet quickly felt the need for another order. Maybe I missed something? No, again it was crunch with just the slightest bit of fluffy filling, more reminiscent of a french fry than a strange and offensive piece of protein.
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Far more rewarding to my taste buds was the red chapulin cricket that was offered after my second round of larvae. Piled high on a neatly cut square of banana leaf, the tiny crickets glistened red with chile. At this point, there was no need to hesitate: lime juice, fork, and straight in, with a satisfying crunch and spice, not unlike that of a chile spiked potato chip. Who would have thought bugs and larvae taste and eat like potatoes?
The second bite of chapulin was a far less timid one, using the banana leaf square as a cricket slide of sorts, shaking every crunchy morsel in. Just a warning: Be sure to check your teeth after eating the crickets. Bits of the exoskeleton have a tendency to stick.
As proprietor of Muñeca Mexicana handcrafted food, Minerva Orduno Rincon makes everything from mole poblano to goat milk caramel to spiced (not spicy) cocoa. She's taking a summer break from farmers markets, but she'll be back in the fall.