Sign up for our free newsletter
Joshua Linton, sous chef at Oyamel in Crystal City, is explaining the finer qualities of dehydrated Mexican grasshoppers. The chapulines are heaped into a pair of small glass bowls on the bar; the larger of the two species, he says, has been cured with salt, chilies, and other spices. When I inspect the dead bugs, I notice that the critters’ tiny segmented abdomens and compound eyes appear oily. “Yeah, I don’t know what kind of oil, but it has oil,” he says. “You can taste it if you like. They’re very good.”
And with that, he throws down the challenge. The first thing that leaps to my mind is a scene from Papillon, in which an emaciated Steve McQueen, while confined in a sunless solitary room, pins down a cockroach and greedily stuffs it into his mouth. Linton senses my hesitation—and that of two other diners at the bar. “You guys are so scared,” he shames us. “Look, you’re going to eat a taco, aren’t you?”
Fighting some deep-seated bug phobia, I bite into one of Oyamel’s grasshopper tacos, an item that executive chef José Andrés occasionally features on his specials menu. The tortilla is crammed with at least a hundred tiny sautéed chapulines, which are piled atop a layer of guacamole like dead soldiers in a mass grave. The taco is more about heat and texture than about the characteristic flavor of grasshoppers, whatever that may be. More than once, I pull out a grasshopper leg from between my teeth.
Authenticity, it seems, can come in strange shapes. If you want “authentic” Mexican food, you obviously won’t find it at Tex-Mex chains like Chipotle or Chevys. But you also won’t find much of it in Little Mexico in Prince George’s County or even at regional Mexican eateries like Mixtec in Adams Morgan. That’s because the only unadulterated Mexican cuisine is pre-Hispanic and often low to the ground—the stuff that the Aztecs and Mayans ate before Cortés set foot onto Mexican soil in 1519, the stuff that’s hard to find here or anywhere. “I think if you want authentic Mexican cuisine, then you have to do pre-Columbian foods,” says Bill Phillips, who teaches American cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America.
What restaurants typically mean by “authentic” Mexican food is anything uncontaminated by Tejano culture—those Mexican-Americans who in the early- and mid-20th century assimilated into Texas culture and created the regional cuisine now known as Tex-Mex. But such discrimination is arbitrary. Most of the cherished dishes of so-called interior Mexican cuisine are mutts, too, the bastard offspring of European and Aztec/Mayan cultures. Here’s a quick reference: If your tortilla is wrapped around beef or cheese, you can thank Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who wanted to rid his European lands of longhorns and ordered all ships to bring the beasts to New Spain.
But as many a chef has pointed out, pre-Columbian cuisine doesn’t exactly play in Peoria, or in Penn Quarter. Though native Aztecs and Mayans ate their share of small fowl and fruits, they were not averse to gobbling down toasted grasshoppers, maguey worms, ant larvae, even oak-boring beetles. It was, perhaps not surprising, a healthy diet. “The ships’ captains keep writing about how healthy, strong, and robust the natives are compared to Europeans,” Phillips says about the historical record. “They’re eating wild game that’s grass-fed, eating all the wild berries, which got a lot more of the omega acids in them.” Of course, the natives were also eating pond scum. “In 1582,” writes Raymond Sokolov in Why We Eat What We Eat, “Juan Bautista Pomar described a kind of food called tecuitlatl made into cakes from pond scum, dark green in color and called cheese of the earth (queso de tierra) by the Spaniards.”
Such clever marketing remains the norm when modern chefs sneak pre-Hispanic foods onto their menus. A number of restaurants, from Tacos Pepito’s Bakery in Adams Morgan to Rosa Mexicano in Penn Quarter, serve huitlacoche, which is corn smut disease. A parasitic fungus attacks the plant and infects corn kernels until they turn black, bloated, and spongy. U.S. farmers consider this fungus a pest; Aztecs apparently considered it a delicacy.
Savvy chefs who serve huitlacoche tend to feature it in quesadillas under the derivative of its Nahuatl name or under more romantic terms, such as “Mexican black mushrooms,” which is how Oyamel describes the infected corn. Rosa Mexicano’s culinary director Roberto Santibañez directs his wait staff to tell diners that huitlacoche is a “mushroom that grows inside the corn cob.” He doesn’t view this as a deception. Look at chanterelles, he notes. “You don’t call it a fungus,” he says, “you call it a mushroom.”
The Mexico City–born Santibañez also serves a marinated lamb shank slow-cooked in parchment paper, which is his nod to the old mixiote cooking technique. Just don’t look for the chef to plague his customers with locusts or other pre-Hispanic oddities. “I can’t give you something that weird,” he says, “that only three foodies would eat.”
Yet the grasshopper tacos at Oyamel are weird in concept only. Once you get over the psychological hurdle of eating a bug-filled tortilla, you’ll find that the experience is rather anti-climactic. The tortilla is so laden with guacamole and the smoky flavor of chipotle peppers that you barely sense the presence of insects. Well, except for their legs. But even with those unwelcome appendages between your molars, you can rest assured that Oyamel’s approach to grasshoppers is a far cry from the way of the Aztecs: They merely toasted the insects on a comal and tossed them back like peanuts. “We kind of adapted it,” Linton says. “I mean if you were to put a bowl of toasted grasshoppers on the table, I don’t know how approachable it would be.”
Oyamel, 2250 Crystal Drive, Arlington, (703) 413-2288 —Tim Carman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.