Last night Mrs. Swarm and I visited the Headlands Center for the Arts to take part in a delicious multi-course meal presented by Monica Martinez, owner of Don Bugito, a new insect-themed food cart in San Francisco.
The Headlands Center is located on the coast of Marin, a reclaimed and renovated building that once comprised part of a large military base, surrounded by acres of restored natural fields and wetlands. Before the meal we ventured upstairs to hear Martinez and Rosanna Yau of MiniLivestock talk about their methods and philosophy. They explained that their goal wasn’t to shock people with insects, nor were they out to demand that people switch to an insectivorous diet. Even folks in Thailand, who are usually used as an example of cultural entomophagy, don’t eat insects as full meals. They’re seasonal snack food, delicious and plentiful. What they really wanted, they said, was to “open the door” of insect eating to the public, and bring about methods for local and sustainable (and profitable) cultivating of insects as livestock and food.
Back downstairs, enthusiastic and excited patrons settled down to a shot of mezcal crafted by Factoria de Santos. The glass was surrounded by 3 different types of sal de gusano, also known as worm salt. Sal de gusano is made with salt, chili powder, and the dried and powdered caterpillar of the moth Hypopta agavis, known in Spanish as chilocuiles. These caterpillars are the “worms” often featured in tequila bottles, for they consume the agave plants from which tequila and mezcal is formed. What I assumed was some seasoning or additive to the salt was actually the incredible umami-like flavor of the powdered worm itself- it was absolutely delicious!
Before each dish Martinez did a small presentation, introducing the insect itself, and cultural aspects of the dish and its ingredients. Since entomophagy was primarily a pre-Hispanic custom in Mexico, most of the ingredients had indigenous roots, such as jicama, blue corn tortillas, and amaranth. Many of the insects themselves, when not harvested in California, were indigenous Mexican insects personally brought over through customs by Martinez and her colleagues.
One of the Mexican insect delicacies delivered fresh to our table was the first course, Escamoles Beurre Noisette. Escamoles are the larvae and pupae of the Liometopum ant, often found nesting in agave plants. It was sauteed in brown butter with zucchini and peppers, and set with with avocado and blue corn tortillas. The white bean-like larvae and pupae had a soft sweet corn taste.
The next dish was paired with a sweet drink called Tepache, which is made from fermented pineapple. Alongside this was an “Anahuac Salad”, a small jicama salad filled with sweet potato and toasted pumpkin, peanuts, and crickets. The crickets were dry-roasted as well, and clearly some of the pumpkiny flavor had mingled with theirs. The entire salad was crunchy and delicious, but to my dismay there was only the faintest sprinkle of crickets on my dish. Indeed, the entire salad had a mere 10 crickets.
In fact, every dish had what I would consider the barest sprinkling of insects. For somebody whose idea of insectivory is “Bag of roasted weaver ants shoved into mouth; repeat!“, this wasn’t much of a chance to really consume mass quantities of insects. At best the insects were a garnish on each plate. I began to worry that some of the dishes were crafted, like the salad and escamoles, to allow the insects to slip into the palate undiscovered. This saddened me somewhat, as it reinforced the unfortunate fate of insect cuisine as being just another transgressive oddity, to be admired and amused by Americans for an evening, then discarded in favor of cow or chicken. Are we really still too timid for such things, even though we sit down to giant bowls of buttered crab legs?
Several things quickly brought me out of this funk. First was the “Sol Corn Custard” sprinkled with wax moth caterpillars. While the dish wasn’t covered in caterpillars, there was no hiding these insects. The soft corn custard was sweet and surrounded by delicate tomato sauce. On top of it were sprinkled crispy waxworms and cordyceps fungus (the explanation of which was the one event that caused a curious stir in the determined diners). I had never had waxworms before, and I doubt I will have any as delicious as these ever again. Each little critter was roasted to perfection, their intense flavor complementing the gentle custard beneath, and echoed in the thin stick-like toasted cordyceps. And as Mrs. Swarm and I looked around the room to watch assembled diners savoring every single prepared insect dish, I realized that each plate was an artful blend of Mexican cuisine and insect flavors, a light and inventive celebration of insects and human culture. More than a garnish, they were the main stars, surrounded by a tasty supporting cast. Suddenly as if on cue, a mutual beekeeper friend of ours swung by our table, ecstatic that instead of simply mass quanities of worms, we were being served “insects in elegance”. She was also enthused to be finally consuming wax moths, which are a persistent pest of honeybee hives. Eating well is the best revenge!
My hope of entomophagical adventure rekindled, it was ready for another truly unique Mexican treat, dry eggs of “lake flies” from the Texcoco Lake in Mexico’s central valley. Actually the eggs of water bugs (hemipterans), these tiny eggs, collected and dried en masse, are known locally as ahuahutle . Consumed since pre-Hispanic times, they are considered to be ‘Mexican caviar’! They had a light oily flavor which was combined with salt, and sprinkled over shoestring potatoes and greens. Though I am not a fan of shoestring potatoes to serve along insects (reminds me too much of the cricket dish I used to order at my no-longer-favorite insect restaurant Typhoon), it looked beautiful underneath the fried greens. Equally Mexican but far more challenging was the Michelada, a drink that tasted like a beer-based bloody mary, powered by Worcestershire sauce and a boatload of salt.
The final dessert of the evening was a vanilla bean ice cream served with cactus fruit sauce, and amaranth molasses crisp, Mrs. Swarm loved the carmelized toffee mealworms sprinkled on top, but I felt the bitter mealworm aftertaste seemed to creep up behind the other sweet flavors. Of all the insects I have eaten in my life, mealworms is strangely one of my least favorite, though it is the most common. This final dish was finished off with a second shot of Factoria mezcal and delicious Mexican chocolate, in a glass that we could take home.
The entire event was a creative success, even if it was a bit light in actual tonnage of insects consumed. I really love eating insects, but what I love even more is learning new cultural entomology and cuisine. The entire event was communicated and presented skillfully by Martinez and her assistants and numerous volunteers in pamphlets, in announcements, but most of all in the food, which really spoke for itself. That education opened doors aplenty.