Thursday, October 6

Chicatanas: The gems of Mother Earth

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The habit of eating insects is old in this world. For hundreds of thousands of years, different cultures across the globe have adopted insects as part of their diet. While eating insects was a mere act of survival in some contexts, in others, it became a whole galaxy of their culinary universe.

Insects are typically found and collected directly from the ground, so it is natural that their consumption is deeply linked to rural contexts and landscapes away from the cities, except for some fortunate exceptions, such as Oaxaca City, where we can still find edible insects in parks and house gardens. The almost uncontrollable growth of cities is devouring nature and numbing our basic survival instincts, such as procuring our food with our own hands directly from the source. And while reversing the false urban comfort of acquiring any type of ingredient regardless of the season or the latitude is one of humanity’s greatest challenges, there are still people who live by nature’s rules and eat what they grow, raise, and collect.

In Mexico, more particularly Oaxaca, insects have been an important part of the compendium of ingredients of the local cuisine gastronomically and culturally speaking since ancestral times. Among the many edible insects consumed throughout the state of Oaxaca, some of the most popular are chapulines, cocopaches, gusanos de maguey, wasps and chicatanas. Out of all these, chicatanas hold a special place on the tables of Oaxaca because of two factors: their complexity of flavours and the short period of time in which they can be collected, thus making them highly demanded and, frankly, a unique delicacy.

chicatana

Photo: Anna Bruce

Chicatanas are big brown-scarlet ants found almost all over North and Central America. They are known for cutting and collecting tree leaves which they use to both feed themselves and to grow fungus from which their larvae feed. Once a year, between early and mid-June (and sometimes even until early July), when the first rains come, the big fertile winged females and males come out of their anthill to reproduce and create more colonies. The chicatanas reproduce and work so fast that one colony on its own can cut the leaves of an entire tree in one day. In fact, some researchers think that since the beginning of time, their consumption was a way to prevent them from becoming a plague. However, under the current climate crisis, and due to the high demand from restaurants and gourmands, colonies of chicatanas are reaching dangerously low numbers.

Catching chicatanas is not an easy process since we can never guess precisely where the chicatanas will come out; the only thing left to do is wait and observe the fields. After the very first rain of the season, once the soil has become humid, smaller “soldier” ants come out and start trimming and cutting the leaves of nearby trees. This often serves as a landmark to locate the anthills. Explained in broad terms, once the nest has been located, people come out to the fields in the middle of the night and place huge reed baskets upside down at the entrance of the anthill to trap the chicatanas before they emerge and fly through the fields. Once collected, they are drowned in water and have their heads, legs and wings removed and are then roasted in a clay comal until crispy. After these basic preparations, the ants can be eaten in different forms, which are almost identical to the methods used by the original inhabitants of Mexico before the Spanish arrived.

Chicatana

New York ahumado con salsa de chicatanas, puré de nabo, bok choy confitado y chicatanas crujientes – Los Danzantes

Chicatanas are often enjoyed as part of a typical Oaxacan summer table spread (mezcal, chapulines, guacamole, quesillo bites, chicharron, Oaxacan sausage), as a plain snack, wrapped in a freshly made tortilla, or in the form of a taco accompanied with cheese, avocado, and salsa. However, the magic of chicatanas as an ingredient is when they are incorporated into more elaborate dishes like salsas, moles or even tamales. Regardless of the dish, the flavour of chicatanas per se is quite difficult to explain. It resembles a mix of hazelnut, peanut, earth, and pork lard, all of which bring a complex array of flavours layered into the palate.

The cultural aspect of this culinary tradition not only demonstrates the local knowledge of the seasons and the earth’s cycles, but also represents the last bastion against food conventions where beef, pork, fish, and poultry are the only acceptable sources of animal protein.  At some point in history, eating chicatanas revealed the unorthodox vision of the world that prevailed in ancient Mexico, a vision that Spanish colonisers tried to cancel for the sake of Christianity and more conventional Western nutritional habits. In that sense, a dish of chicatanas – or any other insects for that matter – was an act of resistance by the original inhabitants of Mexico against the dissolution of their cultures. Now, in the 21st century, the development of nutrition science and the expansion of gourmet trends have given chicatanas another dimension. They have become an expensive and nutritious delicacy only some can afford, with the exception of many rural Oaxacan households, who seem relatively unaltered by all this transition, at least for now.

chicatanas

Terrina de cerdo con risotto de quesillo ahumado y mole de chicatanas – El Tendajón. Photo: Carlos H @photographyoaxaca

Although the rise of chicatanas can be positive in terms of the diffusion and preservation of an ancestral gastronomic culture, the negative side of their popularity is considerable. On the one hand, collecting chicatanas can threaten the harmony of their habitat due to the exploitation by unplanned alternative nutrition projects, tourism operators, the hospitality sector, and food processing industries. On the other hand, being able to find chicatanas outside of their original geographical and cultural contexts, namely in restaurants and supermarkets in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, prevents people from understanding the subtle relationship of this ingredient with the economic and cultural realities of local consumers, from farmers to traditional cooks, who consider the chicatanas as gifts that emerge from the earth once a year, and whose collection is a ritual -a ritual where the chicatanas represent the blessings of the rain, and the offering from the collectors is the daily care of the land, the crops and the ecosystem as a whole.

To maintain the balance between responsible consumption and the promotion of gastronomic traditions, many restaurants and food vendors across Oaxaca city offer chicatana based dishes on their seasonal menus. Daring to try any one of these dishes can be an excellent initiation in insect-eating, and it also opens a door into the greater journey that Oaxacan culture entails. The line between being a traveller watching passively from the shadows or being the participatory kind is often blurred, and the best way to stay on the bright side of the earth is by building deeper connections: visiting villages where chicatanas are collected, establishing direct relationships with local producers, supporting traditional cooks, and keeping an eye on responsible practices so traditions can stay alive and protected.

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