Exotic Aztec Cuisine Enthralls Mexicans

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Aztec food is sweeping modern Mexico--not just the always popular wild duck, boar and crayfish, but corn fungus, fried honey ants and beetles, and the broiled tails and raw eggs of iguanas.

Both tony restaurants and seedy places offer such dishes, at consistently high prices.

The headwaiter at Bellinghausen in the capital's fashionable Pink Zone, who calls himself Don Celsio, said the trend began about 20 years ago. His establishment sells a plate of fried maguey-cactus worms with guacamole sauce for $31.

Why do people eat such things? "Supposedly it contains many vitamins, supposedly this or that," Don Celsio said, "and above all, it's supposed to be a powerful aphrodisiac. It's a lot of nonsense."

At his four luxury restaurants, Nick Noyes serves refined varieties of such Aztec staples as squash flowers and a black, slightly gooey corn fungus called cuitlacoche (weet-la-KOH-chay).

His flagship, Delmonico's, serves both in crepes, as soups or fried with garlic and onions, folded into corn tortillas.

Noyes, a 61-year-old native of Chicago, said he was proud to have invented Mexican caviar--unhatched ant eggs dropped into boiling water for a few seconds, then broiled lightly and served like caviar.

"It has a very delicate flavor," but Mexicans "usually spoil it by frying it bathed in chopped garlic," he added.

A dozen lesser eateries near downtown Mexico City have added Aztec dishes.

One is Don Chon's, near the huge La Merced wholesale market. The chef for 28 years, Fortino Rojas, is a portly man in a food-stained apron who specializes in the cuisine of the outrageous.

In an ambiance of cheap cutlery, paper napkins and beer in the bottle, he winked and said: "We serve everything. Like the ancient Aztecs in Mexico, nothing is wasted--cat, dog, anything."

Don Chon's menu includes maguey-flower cakes in tomato sauce, stews of chrysanthemums or rose petals, armadillo, buffalo and lion steaks. Prices average about $16 a plate.

"The lion? Why it's imported from Africa," Rojas said, winking again.

"Don't believe him," said one of the four women who helps him in the kitchen. "It's mountain lion, a puma."

Aztecs did not have chicken, beef, mutton, pork or goat until the Spaniards brought them 500 years ago, but never lacked for protein. Their diet was balanced and rich in fiber, consisting of about 65% complex carbohydrates, 20% protein and the remainder fat and oil.

Native and European styles combined over the centuries to produce a tasty, sometimes fiery cuisine unique to Mexico.

Much has been written about Mexican cooking, including classics by Diana Kennedy, the widow of New York Times correspondent Paul Kennedy.

Turtle soup and raw turtle eggs were popular until recently, when President Carlos Salinas de Gortari made it a felony to hunt or sell turtles and their eggs because the species is threatened.

Present-day staples include dozens of varieties of cactus, beans and peppers.

The queen of Mexican cacti is the nopal, whose fruit is the prickly pear. The leaves are grilled whole with a touch of safflower oil or cut in squares, boiled and made into a salad with onion, garlic, chopped tomato and coriander.

Villagers in southern Mexico favor broiled maguey worms, ants, even avocado flies.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°