When the Spaniards began arriving in Mexico in the 16th century, they were amazed not only by the architecture, but also by the foods enjoyed by the Aztec, Tolmec and Mayan people. They were in awe, but somewhat repulsed by their taste for ants, locusts, tadpoles and crayfish.
"Things they consider exquisite are eaten no other place in the world," wrote Spanish settler Francisco Hernandez in 1575. "Our farmers would shiver and wouldn't so much as speak the names of these foods."
Much of what the early Spaniards learned over time from the native people of Mexico has survived. Above all the consumption of insects, especially locusts, ant larva and worms, remains today a specialty of the traditional Mexican kitchen.
"In other countries locusts are a plague. Not in Mexico," said Fortino Rojas, who has been a cook for more than 20 years in the restaurant Bar Chon, perhaps the only restaurant in the historic center of the Mexican capital serving exclusively foods from the pre-Spanish era.
Campesinos in the state of Oaxaca are known to rejoice when they discover a large swarm of locusts. The chirps they make as they are grilled are music to their ears. They catch the insects with a sticky natural rubber before they arrive in the kitchen. Locusts are edible after being dried and seasoned with salt and pepper, but they also are crushed and mixed with cornmeal to make a small cake.
Mosquito egg delicacy
A similar delicacy is made from mosquito eggs from Michoacan. The eggs are so prized a small jar of them costs about US$50 dollars. Another favorite is a mixture of locusts and vegetables cooked in a corn tortilla.
Water flies also once were a coveted food enjoyed by the Aztecs. In the Nahuatl language they are called Amoyotl and were held in much higher regard by native people centuries ago than they are today.
In native kitchens they were welcome as larvae, pupae and as fully formed water flies.
Today the larvae of ants is the best-known holdover food from the pre-Spanish era. Mexicans refer to them as ant eggs because it sounds better. Among the various types of worms that are eaten, the most common are those from Maguey-Agave.
They come in red, white, rose and multicolor and are dry roasted on flat plates and eaten with avocado molasses.
The native people who lived in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish had a large selection of meat to choose from, including frog, turtles, rattlesnake and iguana. Bernardino de Sahagun, a Catholic monk, gave his blessing to the consumption of the iguanas. Even though they look like little dragons, they weren't evil.
Apart from their appearance, they taste good, he said. The meat typically was wrapped in a corn tortilla and cooked. Jaguar and dog meat also was eaten wrapped in corn tortillas.
The type of dog eaten by the native people was a hairless Mexican breed that perspired through its skin. It has been under protection to prevent its extinction since 1945.
Today the savory meat is served in Bar Chon with squash blooms and a sweet-sour tamarind sauce. There's also armadillo with mango sauce and crocodile on the restaurant's menu, which has benefited from a tradition that withstood the Spanish conquerors.
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