Monday, June 13, 2011

Bugs in your tacos

A tantarria perched on Félix' finger.

Tantarrias gathered on a mesquite.


The redoubtable Félix, our gardener and fountain of information on all things Mexico, two days ago showed me these gorgeous bugs which had just appeared on our scraggly blackberry bush. They looked a bit like cockroaches except for the precise and intricate markings that resembled some sort of Moorish mosaic or a design on the shield of an African tribesman. Félix informed me they are called "tantarrias" and they live mostly on mesquite trees.

Moreover he said matter-of-factly that they are considered a delicacy by folks in Hidalgo, a state southeast of here. "But not by me," he added. We've talked about foods and cooking and I've noticed that Félix, or more properly his wife Ysela who does all the cooking, seldom stray from conventional tortilla, beans and chile type of fare.

I checked on the Internet and once again Félix was right. He has such sharp and observant mind that in another place and time he could have been a naturalist or biologist instead of a gardener with a sixth-grade education and an uncertain future. Such are the tragedies and waste poverty brings about.

Along with chapulines (grasshoppers), escamoles (ant larvae) and huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on corn, known in the U.S. as corn smut) tantarrias inhabit the more exotic corners of Mexican cuisine.

Some marketing genius has rebranded huitlacoche as "Mexican truffles" and escamoles as "Mexican caviar," based not so much on taste but on what they look like on your plate.

After years of complaining that Mexican grocery stores don't carry this or that ingredient or vegetable to make some Italian or Indian dish, Stew and I are coming to the conclusion that perhaps the most logical solution is to use local ingredients and concentrate on Mexican cooking. It's a culinary adaptation of the Serenity Prayer, about accepting things one cannot change.

Even then one has to fight the "yuk factor" when it comes to eating insects and cancerous-looking fungi scraped from deformed ears of corn. Or for that matter, "tacos de cabeza," or "head tacos" stuffed with some sort of brain matter extracted from the steaming skulls of cows and sold as a delicacy by street vendors in Mexico City. Eyes and cheeks also are considered yummy.

Ever since we got Canadian satellite television Stew and I have become fans of "Iron Chef America," in which two teams of chefs are given a "secret ingredient" to create, along with other meats and vegetables of their choosing, five or six dishes, each more exotic than the last.

The show is all very haute cuisine and has raised or lowered, somewhat, the threshold of what we consider too disgusting to eat. There are all sorts of carpaccios and tartare meats, which are raw but marinated or otherwise seasoned. One time someone served the entrails of sea cucumbers, a vile-looking worm-like marine animal, and in another show the brains of squab, which are baby pigeons before they learn to fly. The judges had to suck the brains out of the little squabs' heads.

After not long the show almost becomes an addictive sort of culinary voyeurism or pornography, showcasing improbable feats of cuisine performed by very experienced and talented chefs. You feel curious and intrigued but not enough to attempt cooking and eating some of that stuff.

Except I'm a 63-year-old Cuban and I just can't go on eating black beans and rice and pork roast with garlic for the rest of my life. Or in the case of Stew, Iowa-style meat and potatoes. One must learn, grow and diversify, no?

So I have sampled beef carpaccio in Mexico City and tacos stuffed with huitlacoche at a local restaurant. I can't clearly recall the taste of either one, except it wasn't bad. Tensing up, closing your eyes and screwing up your face is not the best way to fairly judge the taste of a dish. I may try both again, maybe with some breathing exercises or tranquilizers beforehand. The ant larvae? Let me think about those.

These late stirrings of adventuresome dining, however, won't lead me to a plateful of tantarrias or chapulines. The one recipe for chapulines began with a mound of grasshoppers which one had to prepare by first pulling out their heads and legs, presumably while still live and squirming, as is the case with crabs. The tantarrias also required dismembering and using ingredients like lye and some sort of disinfectant. I didn't get past the first few lines of the cooking instructions for either critter so if you're interested you'll have to do your own research.

As for the tantarrias, I need to find out if they are liable to kill my mesquites. If that's the case, out they go no matter how beautiful or tasty.

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