Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chapulines - An ancestral tradition in Oaxaca

Chapulines at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre, Oaxaca, Mexico
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved

There is a local myth that says:  If you eat chapulines from Oaxaca, then you never leave.   It translates to:  If you eat Oaxaca's extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again. 

Situated in Southwestern Mexico, Oaxaca is bordered by the states of Guerrero to the west, Puebla to the northwest, Veracruz to the north,  and Chiapas to the east and as a bonus:  the Pacific Ocean as its backyard,  drawing tourists from all over the world.  It is indeed a paradise that meets all the senses.

The state is best known for its indigenous peoples and cultures, and for its exotic indigenous cuisine.  In 2010, Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its lists of the world's "intangible cultural heritage".  

Oaxaca's regional cuisine is considered exceptional, and a trip to the markets uncovers just how unique and exotic the gastronomical experience is.  To foreigners, there is a peculiar snack that causes second thoughts.  But to the people of Mexico, this snack or "botanita", is a delicious protein packed delicacy: Chapulines.

The word chapulin is specific to Mexico and derives from the native Nahuatl language.  They have been collected and eaten as a food source for thousands of years and are known as comida prehispanica, or prehispanic food.

Chapulines are grasshoppers of the genus Sphenarium. Indeginous to the region, they are collected only at certain times of the year, (from their hatching in early May through the late summer/early autumn). After being thoroughly cleaned and washed, they are roasted on a comal (clay cooking surface) with garlic, chile, lime juice and sal de gusano (salt made from the roasted maguey worm), making them crunchy, sour-spicy-salty, and may I add adictively delicious. 

The chapulin is an important and indispensable food source for the locals.  During the harvest season, it is very common to see large groups of people collecting them in the milpas, or maize fields.  They provide nutrition as well as income for the locals during the traditional Lent season.  

There are two kinds of chapulines that are harvested.  The one that can be collected from within the maize fields, and the one that can be collected from the banks of the fields.  The first is considered best in size and flavor, as they feed on the corn fields.  The second are smaller in size and they feed mostly on grasses and brush, making them a little bitter in taste.  

Many cultures eat insects.  It is termed as entomophagy (from Greek éntomos, "insect(ed)", and phăgein, "to eat") it is the consumption of insects as food.  However, in some societies it is uncommon, even considered taboo.  It is very rare in modern countries, but in Mexico, there is little to no concern over modern taboos.  Chapulines are eaten to the hearts content.  They are an excellent source of protein, calcium, zinc, vitamins and minerals, and they contain no fat.   
A tlayuda with chapulines
They are served alone as a street snack, or in the cantinas with an ice cold beer, or in tacos with guacomole and salsa.   For a more complete and healthy snack,  they are served on tlayudas.  The tlayuda is a large handmade tortilla that is toasted over coals, then covered with a thin layer of refried beans, shredded lettuce or cabbage, guacamole, and topped with roasted chapulines, smoky salsa, and for coolness, a little drizzle of mexican crema.  It is heaven to the adventurous foodies, and for those whom care to venture out into the extraordinary.

Para Español


  1. The tlayuda looks delicious. I saw the chapulines featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on his Oaxaca tour. Great article!

    Traveling Foodie

  2. Thank You Travelling Foodie, Indeed I think chapulines have been featured on Bizarre Foods. I am sure Mr. Zimmern enjoyed many specialties. Thanks for reading.

  3. Really enjoyed the article, Leticia! Thank you for sharing insights into this very unique cuisine--fascinating for the uninitiated.

  4. Reelmama, I hope you travel to Oaxaca soon and enjoy many of its exotic dishes, especially the moles unique to the region.

  5. Very interesting Leticia. Grasshopper is also served in France. My dad first encountered them during a leave in Paris, and as was his habit he introduced them to me without identifying what I was eating. They were tasty. Thanks for helping bring back some good memories.

    1. Our food habits are shaped by our culture and imposed prejudices. All over the world people have been eating insects and larva for thousands of years. I do like the french escargot and among other french delicacies. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful culinary memory!