Want To Eat Some Bugs? Here’s How Two D.C. Restaurants Use Grasshoppers
By Evan Caplan,
Originally found here.
Salty, crunchy, eminently sustainable, and perched daintily on the foam of your next cocktail: As of this summer, chapulines—the Mexican delicacy of grasshoppers—are featured players on the menu of two D.C.-area restaurants. José Andrés’ Oyamel drops bugs in tacos, and now Victor Albisu’s Poca Madre, which opened in June, incorporates the critters on their plates.
Back in pre-Columbian Mexico (that’s before European colonizers descended), domesticated animals were rare, resulting in diets that veered vegetarian. For protein intake, societies turned to an abundant, wild-caught source: insects.
More specifically, highly nutritional chapulines, whose names comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language. Even as invading Europeans introduced pigs, cows, and chickens, strongly influencing the local diet, the tradition of catching and eating chapulines remained. Now, chapulines are a street corner snack sold from straw baskets, munched on like popcorn.
In addition to their long historical tradition in cuisine, insects are a highly sustainable food source. As compared to traditional agriculture, insect farming creates a footprint as small as the little guys themselves, according to The Journal of the Institute of Food Science & Technology. Kilo-for-kilo (it’s a European organization), “edible insect protein requires 500 times less water, 12 times less feed, and 10 times less land than beef, while producing 613 times less greenhouse gases.” Insects are also less expensive to produce than many grains, and are they also more efficient substitutes as animal feed.
Poca Madre’s and Oyamel’s teams say ecological considerations weren’t part of their decisions to place them on their menus: Both wanted to honor Mexican cuisine and bring this tradition to the table in the District. At Oyamel, José Andrés has been serving chapulines for more than a decade in classical style over tortillas that are made from masa that’s ground in-house.
“We get our chapulines from Oaxaca, Mexico, where there is a long tradition of eating chapulines along with other insects” says head chef Omar Rodriguez.
At Oyamel, the grasshoppers are gently sautéed in shallots and tequila, and sprinkled atop a creamy bed of guacamole.
Chef Omar noted that the restaurant also carries sal de gusano, or worm salt, which is made from worms that feed on the agave plant. “Our salt has a hint of chile and lime, and contains earthy notes or umami due to the agave worm,” he said.
The worm is dried, ground into a powder, and then mixed with chili pepper salt to be used in cocktails. “It’s a traditional accompaniment to mezcal in Oaxaca, and is typically placed on orange wedges that are served with mezcal.” he says.
Albisu’s inventive Poca Madre explores new ways to serve the humble chapulines, much like the rest of menu does for Mexican cuisine. In creating the Poca Madre menu, Albisu and his chef de cuisine Faiz Ally were certain they wanted to serve bugs in some form. On a research trip to Oaxaca, Albisu captured a photo of an insect tostada that provided inspiration for how it appears on the menu today.
Poca Madre (roughly meaning “cool” in Mexican slang) sources the wild-caught critters directly from a small town called San Antonio Del Cal in Oaxaca, where the restaurant has developed a relationship with the community and producers to ensure the sourcing is sustainable.
“The grasshoppers are wild and are found in alfalfa fields,” Ally says of the harvesting process. “Capturing them is an afternoon or weekend event for kids in the village. They go through the fields with nets after school right before sunset. [The grasshoppers] are placed in dark rooms for two to three days to purge and clean themselves, and then they get salted and put in the comal.”
At the restaurant, chapulines are indeed front and center. “On our menu, they are right at the beginning of the meal, like a botana [appetizer],” Ally says. “Typically, that’s how they’re eaten, as a bar snack.”
Ally explains that the chapulines are “dressed in chili, lime, garlic, and Oaxacan sea salt.” On the table, they’re served alongside a basket of tortillas, avocado-goat cheese butter, and boquerones (anchovies). When diners sprinkle the chapulines atop a tortilla with a slather of the infused butter, the combination is an umami assault with a textural pop.
Chapulines also make a cameo at the bar. A cocktail called Charlie & the Chapulin Factory incorporates grasshoppers in two ways. The insects are ground with red chiles as a base for the mezcal, pineapple, and lemongrass, which is then shaken with an egg in the style of a sour. Two whole chapulines grace the foam, should you want a crunchy chaser.
Oyamel is located at 401 7th St NW. Poca Madre is located at 777 I Street NW.