A grasshopper walks into a bar. The bartender says, "You’re not going to believe this, but we have a drink named after you!"
The grasshopper looks surprised and asks, "You have a drink called Steve?"
It was lunch time and I was meandering through the San Juan Mercado in Mexico City looking for weird foods to try in an attempt to push myself even further out of my eating comfort zone. Before I could even navigate past the first few stalls, menus were being offered from several of the miniature restaurants tucked in the corners of the market. There was an iguana on the cover of one of them, so I figured that might be the right place to get started. I sat down with my taxi driver, my Spanish translator app, and began running down the list of dishes. I had definitely come to the right place.
I consider myself somewhat of a food daredevil, but this menu was almost terrifying—and I've eaten guinea pig in Peru, rotted shark in Iceland, and sea cockroaches in Nicaragua. The meat dishes at the top of the list included rabbit, wild boar, and goat. Nothing too extreme. Lower on the list was leon. That’s lion in Spanish. Since there are no lions in Mexico, what exactly was it? I asked them if it was actually a lion, and they shook their heads and smiled. There seemed to be no explanation except someone had cooked up an exotic name to serve stray cat. I was not about to eat someone’s kitty. (Ed. Note: Could it possibly have been cecina de León? We may never know.)
Instead, I started off with armadillo. Being from Texas, where armadillos have almost holy status on par with the bluebonnet and the mockingbird, it felt like I was committing a sin against my state by even considering such a thing. Maybe the cook knew it too, since it was served in aluminum foil instead inside a little armadillo half-shell like one might expect. There was a big layer of fat on the top of the meat, but once you pulled that off and put it in a tortilla, it tasted like…don’t make me say it… Okay: It tasted like chicken.
The next item was the iguana. I had seen a travel show years ago where locals had shot iguanas out of trees and sautéed their parts in butter. It looked like something out of a sci-fi film, but I was fascinated. I have never seen iguana on menus in touristy, iguana-ridden places like Playa del Carmen or Cancun, but here it was on a menu in the one place in Mexico where iguanas don’t live. It was also wrapped in foil.
Still, any doubt that the chef might be switching out some other meat for iguana was instantly dispelled when I opened the packet. There were little bits of tail and other lizard parts. The skin had not been removed so one had to pull it off to get to the meat. It was stretchy like an old green stocking, the meat sinewy and and striated like jerky. It was like eating dried-up chicken wings, but the spicy sauce redeemed it. After all, most meat just ends up tasting like what it’s cooked in. Would I eat it again? Yes. There’s something really cool about eating iguana although I haven't yet been able to put my finger on why that is.
The most difficult course was next. I had ordered the ant eggs and the five-bug plate. I know; ant eggs? Seriously? Who would even take the time to collect them when there are perfectly good vegetables and other foods that are much easier to gather? Running the risk of getting stung by irate ants for taking their unborn children doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do.
When the plate came, it looked less formidable than I had imagined. It looked like a mound of yellow-tinted caviar. That’s the way to think about it: ant caviar. That doesn’t sound as bad. I decided to bite the bullet and took a teaspoon of bug larvae in my mouth. As I chewed, I realized that it didn’t taste too bad at all. The texture was almost like boiled wheat. The flavor was a little odd, but to be honest, I would have never been able to tell you that I was eating anything insect-related if I hadn’t known. It was the best thing out of all the bug items.
Finally the bug plate arrived. It looked as terrible as you might imagine: heaps of grasshoppers, crickets, worms and god knows what else on a shiny white dish. You might think you know what a bug tastes like. I thought I did. I imagined that it might be flavored like that smell a stinkbug makes. I had eaten a mopani worm in South Africa once, and not only did it have a horrible buggy taste, but the texture was like cardboard. I was expecting the worst. As I contemplated where I might run if I needed to vomit, a patron sitting at the table next to me received his meal. He had a bug plate too and just popped handfuls in his mouth like a person eating popcorn at movie. Bugs seem to not be any big deal to a culture that’s used to them, but I’ll admit that I have a big mental block against eating insects.
I popped a grasshopper into my mouth and waited for the acrid taste to overpower my palate. And...there was none. It was like eating one of those chili peppers that they serve with peanuts in Mexico. A dried, crunchy chili taste that wasn’t bad at all. I tried another. and another. I was still alive. I wasn’t nauseous. Chewing up an insect wasn’t the terrible thing I imagined. I couldn’t see myself ordering such a thing again, but I had conquered my fear and done a thing that I probably would never have done before I started writing down my travel adventures. My taxi driver felt sorry for me and shared his chicken sandwich with me. He probably realized I needed a little comfort food while I internalized my food odyssey.
I wasn’t finished with my bug experience, however. I had decided the final entries on my Mexico loco-vore list would be in liquid form. First up, mezcal with a worm. After the other stuff, that was child’s play. I did a live Facebook video so my friends could watch it and be grossed out, which they were. The worm tasted like mezcal—much like meat tastes of its marinade—so there was nothing to it.
My final drink was the chapulina. Chapulina means “grasshopper” in Spanish and trust me, this is not the crème de menthe-based cocktail your parents drank. In Mexico, the bartender starts off with two dishes of grasshoppers. She grabs a handful of the small ones and muddles them with mint leaves and simple syrup and strains the drink into your glass with tequila and whatever else goes into it. The concoction is topped with mint leaves and two large dried grasshoppers from the other dish. You pop one in your mouth and sip your drink while you chew the bug and the mint leaf. It tasted a lot like a margarita with a little chili pepper. Really not bad until you pull out a grasshopper leg that got caught between your teeth.
So next time you’re in Mexico and feeling brave, find the food that the locals eat and most tourists don’t even know exists. You’ll earn your travel wings and potentially disgust your friends. Mine are still talking about it.