(CNN) — Long before Timon and Pumbaa from the Lion King popularized the phrase “Slimy, yet satisfying,” a whole gastronomic culture around insects already existed in Mexico.
About 1 million of the 1.4 million named animal species on Earth are insects, and they have the potential to fight malnutrition around the world, said the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“Wild animals and insects are often the main protein source for people in forest areas,” FAO’s Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva said at the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome, where the organization recently presented their latest report, “Edible insects; Future prospects for food and feed security.”
According to the release, “negative perceptions” and “consumer acceptance” are the biggest obstacles to the adoption of insects as viable sources of protein in many Western countries. The organization says that “insect gathering and rearing as minilivestock at the household level or industrial scale can offer important livelihood opportunities for people in both developing and developed countries.”
“The profile of the Mexican insects is very favorable because they have a large amount of protein, there is a major quantity of essential amino acids that we cannot produce in our metabolism, but we need to consume in our meals,” said Julieta Ramos-Elourdy, biologist and researcher at the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
According to Ramos-Elourdy, 549 of insects catalogued as edible live in Mexico, out of the almost 1,900 that inhabit the world. But according to FAO, Asia and Africa are the regions that consume the most insects in the world.
Among the most nourishing Mexican species are the chapulines, or grasshoppers. A portion of 100 grams of these insects has up to 80 grams of protein and only four grams of fat, in addition to several essential minerals, said Ramos-Elourdy.
In popular markets across Mexico, a pound of grasshoppers can cost less than $4.
Just like meat
In 2010, traditional Mexican food was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Humanity. The consumption of insects in the country goes back to ancient civilizations; insects were part of the Aztec’s usual diet 600 years ago and many of them preserved their indigenous names, said Ramos-Elourdy.
Some of the most common edible species you can find are the white maguey worm, escamoles (ant eggs,) chinicuiles (red worms), snails and ahuahutle (eggs of water flies).
According to Ramos-Elourdy, insects are part of daily meals only in the most remote, indigenous communities in Mexico, which do not have access to other sources of protein.
These communities gather the insects during rain season, store them and consume them around the year “as if it was the meat in our fridge,” said the biologist. The insects are consumed mainly roasted or fried in their own fat, with corn tortillas and sauces made with tomatoes and chilies.
A gourmet resource
Some restaurants in Mexico’s main cities offer insects. At the San Juan Market, in Mexico City, vendors said gastronomy students often buy insects to create their own recipes.
Compared with the indigenous regions, where residents gather the insects directly from their habitat, in the cities, one pound of Chiapa’s chicatana ants can cost up to $450, especially when the offering is scarce.
Marcela Briz, co-owner of the Mexican traditional restaurants chain El Cardenal, said that according to the sales in their restaurants, the consumption of insects has increased within the last year – mainly because of consumers’ interest in discovering other aspects of traditional Mexican cuisine.
“People’s favorite dish, regarding insects? Escamoles (ant eggs),” Briz said. “They are eaten as an entree and they are truly a delicacy. It’s like our caviar, the Mexican caviar. At a table of real gourmets, you will always find an escamoles casserole.”
Want to try insects in the U.S.? Here are places that are serving up the grub(s).