Keep an open mind.
That’s what I told myself as I sat at a table in El Tejate, a restaurant in Escondido, ready to sample an order of chapulines, which I formerly knew only as grasshoppers.
I’d never eaten any insect before. I knew in the back of my mind that there was nothing new about humans eating insects, or entomophagy, the scientific term for it. Those familiar with the Bible may recall John the Baptist eating “locusts and honey.” That came to me as I read a 2013 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.
“People throughout the world have been eating insects as a regular part of their diets for millennia,” the report stated. And the practice continues, with the FAO estimating that “insect-eating is practiced regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwide.”
Reasons range from necessity to cultural choices: “From ants to beetle larvae—eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets—to the popular crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand....”
That list includes the chapulines of Oaxaca, Mexico.
“I grew up with this food,” said Lucina Contrares, owner of El Tejate. “When I was little my mom would get them and we’d eat them in tortillas. Sometimes that was all we had to eat.”
Though she might have had to eat them out of necessity as a child, she still loves eating them today. “I’d rather eat a bunch of these than a bunch of shrimp.”
I tasted a spicy, crunchy richness as I scooped up a handful from the plate. Moments later, as I rolled some up in a tortilla sprinkled with a little salsa, I could have been eating shredded beef or pork but for the crunch. Maybe I thought of meat because, as Contrares reminded me, “They’re rich in protein. No cholesterol, just protein.”
El Tejate specializes in the cuisine of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
“The way we cook is very different,” Contrares said. “It takes more time and more expense.”
Insects are a traditional part of Oaxacan cooking, along with more generally known ingredients like beef, pork and chicken. She gets the insects directly from suppliers in Oaxaca.
Contrares, who has been in the restaurant business for 18 years in Escondido, said she’s found a growing popularity for insect-based dishes. The Oaxacan community makes up about 30% of her customer base, but she also gets orders for chapulines from other customers as well.
Many are looking to insects as an environmentally friendly food source. The FAO report says “Insects promoted as food emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock…” Because they are cold-blooded, they are also more efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets, for example, “need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.”
Livestocking insects also takes up less land than cattle or pigs. Nutritional, environmental and sustainability issues have driven development for live insects as well as insect-based products like flour. There are now protein bars made from cricket flour produced by companies like Chapul, based in Utah. Insect flour producers include the Canadian-based Entomo Farms.
How much this broader market has reached San Diego County isn’t clear. I discovered a local insect livestocking operation, American Cricket Ranch, but it was devoted to pet food. Another local company, EntoBento, utilizes crickets for pet treats.
Still, there are a number of restaurants in the county in addition to El Tejate offering insect-based entrées, Tacos Perla and El Texcoco being two examples. Given the human history of entomophagy and the globalization of economies and cultures, who knows? I’ll let Lucina Contrares have the last words:
“I hear a lot of people say this is going to be the food of the future.”