Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Worms for breakfast

Posted By on 01.06.09 at 06:14 PM

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A couple days ago while preparing to make fresh pasta, I discovered the larvae of what I assume were flour beetles in my flour. I threw out the bag and went to the store for more. This morning, looking at the maguey worms, chapulines (Mexican fried grasshoppers), and acociles (tiny freshwater crayfish) Mundial Cocina Mestiza was serving, I wondered why I'd bothered.

The invertebrate-heavy offerings were part of a preview for Taste of the Aztec World, a program taking place in conjunction with the Field Museum's current exhibit "The Aztec World" and intended to give people a taste of Aztec-inspired fare. From Sunday the 11th until Saturday the 17th, 16 local restaurants will be offering specials--some more exotic than others.

Brad Parsons, executive chef for Aria, cheerfully admits that his chile-braised short ribs and tomato and cheese tamales aren't particularly authentic, but says that he's more interested in taking traditional ingredients and putting an American spin on them to make them more palatable and comfortable for his customers (he describes Aria as "culturally inspired and comfortably American"). He considered serving grasshoppers, but "that doesn't sell."

Grasshoppers were popular, though, with several other chefs. Adam Seger, mixologist at Nacional 27, was serving guacamole topped with fire-roasted corn and crushed grasshoppers seasoned with salt and chile powder, as well as a tasty concoction of pulque (a fermented drink made from the juice of the maguey plant), agave nectar, lime juice, and hibiscus. Carlos Gaytan, chef-owner of Mexique, didn't have food for sampling but plans to offer a four-course meal including huaraches with black bean sauce, winter squash, and grasshoppers.

But only Mario Cota, owner of Mundial Cocina Mestiza, went so far as to give people worms to eat with their grasshoppers (and yes, he plans to serve both at his restaurant). There'll also be tamer dishes with rabbit and duck as well as a panna cotta-like desert with figs. He hasn't yet decided how he'll use the maguey worms or chapulines, but he will be serving escamoles, or ant larvae, with guacamole and peanuts (he didn't have escamoles available for tasting, but says they have a nutty flavor).

So how did the other exotic fare measure up? Each was served on a corn chip smeared with either salsa borracha or a paste made from toasted dried shrimp, toasted avocado leaf, and cascabel chiles. The grasshoppers were crunchy and easy to like, tasting mostly like their seasonings. Acociles were a little fishy for me that early in the morning, but not bad.

And the maguey worms? I think they're an acquired taste. The salsa may have masked the flavor some (thank god), so I can't comment too much on how they tasted. (I know I should probably have tried them solo, but I have a pretty sensitive gag reflex, which I'm only willing to push so far at 10 AM.)

Cota, who first tried the worms recently when he traveled to Mexico City to learn about Aztec culture and cuisine, assured me that he didn't like them at first either. But he's optimistic that his patrons are adventurous enough to try them--and if he gets a positive response, he'll consider adding escamoles, maguey worms, chapulines, and acociles to the menu permanently.

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