Edible bugs (whether they are technically insects or not) have been part of the diet of many cultures around the world throughout history. They were an important source of protein for Mexico’s pre-Columbian peoples, and a variety of species continue to be consumed to this day.
Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) is practiced by the inhabitants of many states in central and southern Mexico, including those in parts of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, Campeche, Puebla, and others. Nowadays, edible bugs are an everyday finding only in rural indigenous communities; in urbanized areas, this food source is slightly less common and is often consumed only in specialized restaurants. The scarcity of edible insects in big cities—and the “gourmet” treatment given them by some chefs—tend to make most insect dishes quite pricey.
Some experts estimate that up to 500 different bug species are used as a food source in Mexico. What follows is just a smattering of the most well-known ones.
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Gusanos de Maguey (Maguey Worms)
Maguey is the agave plant used to produce tequila, pulque, mezcal, and other traditional Mexican alcoholic beverages, and its “worm” is actually a parasitic caterpillar (moth larva) that lives its leaves and roots. Maguey worms are either whitish with brown tips or reddish in color; the red variety is known as chincuiles. Only a few worms can be harvested from each plant and only after the plant has grown for several years and thus is ready to be harvested; therefore, maguey worms tend to be quite rare and expensive.
Chincuiles and maguey worms are generally either roasted on a comal or fried in oil and eaten as an appetizer (often wrapped in a corn tortilla smeared with a simple guacamole) or ground up and blended with other ingredients to make a sauce. It is said that their flavor is similar to that of chicharrones (pork cracklings or pork rinds).
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Many species of grasshopper-like insects are prized in Mexico for their protein content and flavor; they are sometimes raised intentionally in alfalfa fields as a food source. In size, they vary from as small as a grain of rice on up to the size of a large cricket.
Unlike many edible bugs listed here, chapulines tend to be relatively inexpensive, and thus accessible to the average Mexican. They are boiled, then toasted or fried and sold by street vendors as a snack, made into quesadillas (especially in Oaxaca), eaten in tacos, and sprinkled on guacamole and other dishes as a garnish. You’ll sometimes find chapulines served in cantinas as a botana or bar snack.
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Escamoles (Ant Larvae)
The larvae of this particular ant species can be found in underground nests several feet below the surface. They are whitish in color and look a little like puffed rice.
Escamoles were an everyday part of the ancient Mexican diet; nowadays, though, they are somewhat hard to come by and considered quite the delicacy (read: expensive) when they become available during their short spring season. This, together with the larvae’s appearance, has given escamoles the nickname of “Mexican caviar.”
Escamoles are fried (often seasoned with the Mexican herb epazote) and eaten wrapped in a corn tortilla, mixed in with scrambled eggs, and made into exquisite stews. They are also sometimes steamed in an underground oven in a way very similar to how barbacoa is made.
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Jumiles (Stink Bugs)
Greenish brown flying insects about 1/4 to 1/2 inch long, jumiles were collected by pre-Columbian peoples in a festival related to the Day of the Dead, and they retain some of the connection to that celebration to this day. In some small towns in the state of Guerrero, there is a stink bug festival which is held each year on the Monday after the Day of the Dead. The season for the collection of this insect runs from October through January.
Jumiles can be eaten raw (still alive), though in that state they have a fetid odor and strong iodine-like flavor that make this food source very much an acquired taste. They also contain a substance that numbs the tongue and takes away hunger. Despite these characteristics, raw stink bugs have a certain following because they are believed to have great medicinal—and even aphrodisiacal—properties.
Jumiles can also be toasted and eaten as a taco in a corn tortilla, ground with other ingredients (such as tomatoes) into sauces and guacamoles, and used as an ingredient in a variety of stewed dishes.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Hormigas Chicatanas (Atta Ants)
Dark brown or reddish in color, the large leafcutter ants of the different species of the Atta genus build nests several meters wide and one or two meters under the ground. Their habitat extends over most of the territory of Mexico, and they are generally “harvested” in the summertime.
Chicatanas are toasted, like many other edible insects, but unlike most of the others, their legs, wings, and heads of these large ants are removed before the bodies are consumed. The toasted chicatanas are eaten as a taco filling, made into soups, or ground with other ingredients and used as a sauce in spicy stews.