Postcard from Oaxaca: Grasshoppers leap from barfood to gourmet

A grasshopper that sleeps will soon awake in a lizard’s mouth.

African proverb

Given the way grasshoppers can leap, wonder how anyone catches all the mounds of grasshoppers, chapulines, the vendors offer for sale in the markets of Oaxaca.

Debbie Hadley points out on about.com:

If you’ve ever tried to catch a grasshopper, you know how far they can jump to flee danger. If humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would easily leap the length of a football field or more. How do they jump so far? It’s all in those big, back legs. A grasshopper’s hind legs function like miniature catapults. When it wants to jump, the grasshopper contracts its large flexor muscles slowly, bending its hind legs at the knee joint. A special piece of cuticle within the knee acts as a spring, storing up all that potential energy. When the grasshopper is ready to jump, it relaxes the leg muscles, allowing the spring to release its energy and catapulting its body into the air.

Plus, they can fly.

Since ancient times, people in the hills and valleys of Oaxaca have consumed insects of various kinds. They are a widely available source of protein.

Grasshoppers, small locusts, can do an incredible amount of damage, the sort of damage resembling the plagues of the Bible. If a grasshopper consumes half its body weight in plants everyday, imagine what swarms can do, the kind of swarms that blocked out the sun in parts of the Midwest during 1931.

In the United States, 2010 was a worry-some year once again in the Midwest. But farmers have a superhero helping them fight such invasions. Charles L. Brown is the American czar of grasshoppers, the national policy manager for Grasshopper Control for the United States Department of Agriculture. And among his arsenal of weapons is metarhizium acridum, a mycoinsecticide. This is regarded as a form of “natural” control using entomopathogenic fungi to invade the grasshoppers bodies, take them over and kill them.

Sounds like your worst nightmare, body-invasion-type of horror film to me. Attack of the Fungi.

Makes the Mexican solution much more palatable as an intelligent form of insect control, perfect for organic gardeners everywhere.

Suppose all of those grasshoppers in the marketplace had been left to hop wherever they wanted, ravaging crops along the way? Instead they are being eaten. After being toasted on a comal with chiles and garlic and seasoned with salt and lime, the crunchy treats can be gobbled up by the handful like popcorn or wrapped in tortillas.

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Although I never cared much for the greasy version offered in bars to accompany mezcal, I’m totally open to consumption in more upscale eateries. The enormous shrimp atop a nopal and roasted kale salad at La Olla were crawling with them, and they swarmed the ancho chile relleno at Los Danzantes.

And, true confession, we’ve consumed more insects than just grasshoppers. The Mister’s plate at El Origen was sprinkled with tasty ground black ants, chicatanas.

Oh, and you remember the nasty squirmy-looking worm in the bad bottles of rot-gut mezcal people used to bring home from Mexico as more of a joke? Well, he’s come out of the bottle and onto plates as well. A maguey worm, gusano del maguey, is actually a caterpillar that feeds on the heart of maguey, or agave, plants before emerging as an Aegiale hesperiaris butterfly. The more common red worms, chinicuiles, larvae of a moth that inhabit agave, are ground up with salt and chile to accompany a glass of mezcal, which has gone upscale as well.

Salud!

Postcard from Oaxaca: Serious salads

Gorgeous greens, so incredibly fresh they taste as though the kitchen just harvested them from a rooftop garden.

Not the stereotypical first food post from Oaxaca, but the salads in this capital of respectful fusion of ancient cooking traditions and contemporary presentations are that good. Long-gone are the days when traveling Americans need feel constrained in vegetable consumption, and Oaxaca is about more than mole.

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Among the salads we have sampled recently are:

  • Mounds of fresh watercress – berros – with pears, Roquefort and honey, a wonderful spinach and grapefruit salad and yet another one with roasted nopales, asparagus and smoky quesillo at La Biznaga
  • Spinach salad with a round of goat cheese and crispy adornment at Los Danzantes
  • An organic salad with strawberries and crispy strips of sweet potatoes and one layering fresh nopales and roasted baby kale topped with luscious enormous shrimp covered with chapulines, toasted grasshoppers – a Oaxacaan delicacy – at La Olla
  • Spinach salad topped with pomegranate seeds and a stone-ground mustard vinaigrette at El Morocco Café
  • An abundance of arugula and pears at Mexita

More food posts ahead.