The majority of the world have been enjoying the high protein deliciousness of insects for thousands of years. So, what’s taking the West so long to get on board? As with many emerging food trends, we see something out of the ordinary and we usually think ‘why?’ Slowly however, Westerners are starting to catch on. And hey, if it’s good enough for New Yorkers, it’s good enough for you.
We chatted with Head Chef of East Village restaurant Black Ant, Mario Hernandez, about cooking with bugs.
What made you bring traditional Oaxacan food in to a restaurant business?
I’m just an adventurous cook and a lover of Mexico who delights in the experience of traveling to discover flavors, aromas, colours, traditions - some of which I had only heard about, but many that I was to discover in this infinite world of Oaxaca gastronomic wealth, that plays a part in the daily cultural religious, and festive life of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is a land of many fiestas, most of them based on religious observances, whether Spanish-imposed Catholic rites or pre-Columbian tradition and beliefs. Everyday there is an interesting celebration somewhere. So our menu is a constant celebration of what I discover and find in every trip to this magical land.
What are the benefits of eating insects?
Lots of protein with zero fat. But, the most important thing for me: it shows the world the cuisine of my culture.
Can you tell us a bit about how you decided to incorporate insects into your daily menu?
Well, we called the restaurant Black Ant, because a legend in the Aztec pantheon says the ancient gods tried to separate the mountains with their colossal force to gain access to maize but they didn’t succeed. The Aztecs came to pose this problem to Quetzalcoatl. "I'll bring them to you," the god answered. Quetzalcoatl, the mighty god, did not try in vain to separate the mountains with his strength, but instead, used his cunning.
Quetzalcoatl turned into a black ant and accompanied by a red ant, marched to the mountains. The road was full of difficulties, but Quetzalcoatl overcame them, thinking only of his people and his food needs. He made great efforts and did not give up on fatigue and difficulties. Quetzalcoatl reached as far as the corn was, and being transformed into an ant, took a ripe grain between his jaws and started the return. When he arrived he delivered the promised grain of corn to the hungry people.
The Aztecs planted the seed. They obtained the corn that they sowed and harvested. The precious grain, increased their wealth, and they became stronger, built cities, palaces, temples...
From that moment, the Aztecs venerated the generous Quetzalcoatl, the god who was the friend of men, the god who brought them corn.
So, when we chose the name Black Ant, I decided to rescue all those forgotten recipes from my grandmother, from those little villages, from my childhood.
Do you think that eating insects will become the norm in the future?
It’s normal now in many ways, when you have shot of mescal, or tequila with worm salt. Many people travel to different latitudes and experience different cultures and cuisine.
How sustainable is mass consumption of insects?
Very. You use 10 liters of water to produce a kilo of grasshoppers and 15,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of beef.
Do you think that using inventive dishes such as your own will help people move on to eating insects?
Yes and education and respect for ingredients; it’s the key to understanding the different cuisines around the world and, being open to all possibilities.
What do you think the future of food will be?
Expect more innovation, more creativity; people being open to new possibilities and respectful of the planet.
Can you tell us a bit about the dishes you serve?
Well, my menu changes every season. I travel to mexico to find inspiration and I bring back new things to work with. I use insects in many ways in my kitchen. It’s love, colours, aromas, sustainable; it’s respect for the farmer, for the fisherman, responsibly tasty. Currently, it’s:
Grasshoppers ice cream
Black ants salt for my guacamole
Bone marrow with grasshoppers and tortilla ashes
Agave worms with epazote, roasted leeks, uni morita salsa
People should be open to use and show how tasteful these little guys can be and we want them to remember the little legend of the Black Ant (La Hormiga Negra).
It’s also important to say that we depend on the insect in our daily life. Take bees: bees are a key determinant of our lifestyle and diet which remain unrecognised by many. If one day bees significantly decline or go extinct this will have a drastic impact on the economy, our relationships, people’s lifestyle and diet. Quite often the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word ‘bee’ is honey. Nice tasty, healthy and sweet honey. But, do we truly realize what an essential role bees (and other insects) play in our existence?
Apart from giving us an opportunity to consume quality products, bees are among the major pollinators of about half of the plants species on the planet. A world without bees is literally a world without fruit; vegetables, nuts and seed, and the lack of honey would be the least of humanity’s problems.
We have all heard the quote of the famous scientist Albert Einstein, which states that if bees disappeared from the earth, humanity would last no more than 4 years. Insects, 80% of which are bees, pollinate one third of the food that humans consume. If bees went extinct, there would be no yields and no harvest. In fact, without insects we die. And many people don’t realise how much we depend on insects. So, is it really normal to eat insects or not?