A Breakfast of Delicious Maggots
Cuchamá in Zapotitlan Salinas
The surroundings were almost like a movie. For the first time in my life I saw more cactuses—some of them 20 feet tall—than any other type of plant. And no, technically I wasn’t in the desert. Actually, the weather was fairly benign. The wind was chilly and the sun didn’t burn like it does in the north of the country, where it makes you want to live forever inside an air-conditioned building.
The biosphere reserve of Tehuacan-Cuicatlan, located in the southern Mexican state of Puebla (bordering Oaxaca), has a history dating back to 14000 B.C., when the first people arrived in what is now Mexico. During the past sixteen centuries, they have developed a unique gastronomy. It’s not based on cattle or corn. It’s a diet made out of bugs and cactuses. They cook with what they have, with the resources available in the area.
I found that out when the waitress of a little restaurant in Zapotitlan Salinas, a town of 2500 people, delivered me my breakfast, cuchamá. That’s the popoloca—an indigenous language spoken by roughly 20,000 people, who are called by the same name—word for “caterpillar that lives in a green tree branch,” and it’s an insect eaten in the Mixtec region of Mexico during the rainy summer months.
They had been fried, but hadn’t lost their wormy shape. They still had those small hairs on their bodies that make them annoying and somewhat poisonous. Their flavor was amazing. Salty and crunchy, they’re sort of like peanuts and chapulines. Those last ones are also bugs, like grasshoppers, that live all across Mexico, and even in the U.S. They are a popular snack at some bars in Mexico City and elsewhere.
So, while I ate my cuchamás in a taco—yes, in Mexico everything is better in a taco—Maurino, our tour guide, a native of the region who used to live, like many other men of Zapotitlan, in New York City, explained how life has changed but retains some elements of its pre-Hispanic days.
From old recipes for chewing gum made out of one the 300 species of plants in the region to shampoos made out of cactus oil to eating worms, Zapotitlan—and all the towns in the reserve—still respect some old traditions and older beliefs. Family is first, for instance. To gather around your love ones and share a meal of cuchamás is one of the proudest traditions among the popoloca’s descendants. And there I was, eating a bunch of delicious maggots, imagining myself twelve centuries back doing exactly the same thing. Because some things never change.