By Duncan Tucker
Mexican cuisine is renowned the world over, but beyond the usual fare of tacos, enchiladas, tamales and quesadillas, only the most adventurous of visitors are brave enough to sample some of the nation’s more exotic delicacies.
Mexicans are not ones to waste food, meaning every possible animal part will find its way into a recipes in some shape or form. To find out what’s best, Global Delivery Report caught up with one man who’s tried it all: Kenny Galloway, a Peace Corps volunteer based in Queretaro.
“Essentially I’ve eaten every part of the pig, cow and goat, including eye balls and private parts. All are delish!” Galloway boasts. Based on his recommendations and our own experiences in Mexico, here are five snacks we dare you to try on your next trip:
“My favorite dish in Mexico is tripa (pig or cow intestines). Tripa is found all over Mexico, most commonly at a taco stand in a tianguis, or open-air market, which would serve every part of the cow or pig,” Galloway says.
“Tripa is very tricky, at least for my tastes. It shouldn’t be served undercooked and too soft, nor should it be over cooked, making it too hard to chew and with a burnt after taste. Crispy on the outside and soft and succulent on the inside is the perfect way to enjoy a tripa taco. In this sense I have a love-hate relationship with tripa because there are many vendors that don’t do it justice and serve it under or over cooked. But if done right, accompanied by very spicy fresh salsa, tripa can be pure yum!”
Similar to tripa but different, Cow or sheep tripe – the stomach lining, is also often served in a soup known as menudo. The animal’s entire stomach (and often the feet) are stewed in a broth seasoned with onion, garlic, lime, salt, cilantro, oregano and crushed red chili peppers. It takes several hours to prepare and is considered a potent cure for la cruda, or hangover. Such is the dish’s popularity that Mexico has become a major export market for tripe from U.S. and Canadian beef producers.
Arguably the tamest snack on this list, tacos de lengua are tortillas stuffed with fried beef tongue. This may not sound appetizing – and the giant tongues on display at taco stands or ethnic markets do not look all that appealing to most gringos either – but once shredded or chopped into small cubes and sautéed in lard, the meat is not dissimilar to regular beef in terms of taste or texture. If cooked well, the tongue should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, although if you prefer a crispier finish it can be charred over the parrilla. Beef is the most commonly eaten tongue in Mexico, although pork and lamb tongues are both available alternatives.
“Tongue tacos are another one of my favorite dishes in Mexico. You’ll notice a trend here as virtually everything in Mexico sooner or later will find its way into a corn tortilla, accompanied by fresh salsa (of all types). Tongue tacos are found in the exact same context as tripa tacos, at your local open-air market anywhere in Mexico,” Galloway says.
“I’ve never understood why people consider tongue so strange, other than the fact that it’s tongue. But, similar to heart, it’s just another muscle in the body, like a nice cut of steak that wouldn’t be considered out of the ordinary by anyone. I always describe tongue as one the most tender and moist cuts of meat you’ll ever try. The flavor profile has a very subtle gaminess.”
What better way to boost your brainpower than by munching on some beef brains wrapped in crispy corn tortillas? Known in Mexico as sesos, fried brains are commonly served in tacos or quesadillas at street stalls across the country. The light-colored meat has little flavor of its own and all you are likely to taste is the salsa verde, cilantro, chopped onion and lime juice with which it is served. However, the soft, mushy texture is not to everyone’s taste.
“Brain (pig, cow or goat) is a delicious option available at open-air markets all throughout Mexico,” Galloway says. “My favorite preparation is to eat brain in a taquito dorado (fried corn tortilla). The combination of the crispy taco and the creamy, mildly sweet brain works really well, especially when balanced out with some fresh lime juice and green salsa. The texture could be compared to that of scrambled eggs.”
Warning: beef brains are very high in cholesterol and are banned in some parts of the world because of the outside chance that consumers contract “Mad Cow Disease” from eating the nervous tissue of an infected cow.
Chapulines, or grasshoppers, are a delicacy from the southern state of Oaxaca, where they can be found in large baskets at almost any street market. High in protein and low in fat, these crunchy insects have been a staple of the local diet since the pre-Columbian era. Toasted on a clay cooking surface and lightly seasoned with garlic, lime juice, chili and salt containing extract of agave worms, the grasshoppers are to be eaten whole and you may want a toothpick to remove any limbs that get stuck between your teeth!
“Not much seasoning is needed, as the natural flavor is acidic and salty. You could consider them to be nature’s potato chips and they’re often enjoyed in this manner, just as finger food, accompanied by an ice cold Pacifico beer. Chapulines are also delicious when served with fresh guacamole, spicy salsa, and corn tortillas,” Galloway says.
Local legend has it that anyone who tries chapulines will forever carry a part of Oaxaca with them. They are often served as a snack in local cantinas and also combine nicely with a shot of mezcal, tequila’s bolder, smokier cousin. Chapulines can also be found in culinary markets and some restaurants in throughout Mexico and the surrounding areas of Puebla and Cuernavaca.
Warning: grasshoppers from some areas of Oaxaca have been found to contain high levels of lead. Eating a few will not hurt, but pregnant women and children should avoid them.
Ant Salsa and Larvae
Another treat from Oaxaca, and the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Puebla and Veracruz, salsa de chicatanas is a spicy, salty sauce made from flying ants. The chicatana ants, which take flight at the start of the rainy season in late May or June, must be caught with caution as they have strong pincers and an aggressive bite. Once enough have been collected, their legs, wings and thorax are removed, leaving just the abdomen, and they are toasted, ground and fried with a combination of onion, garlic, tomato, salt and chili.
When the salsa has gained the right consistency it can then be smeared guacamole-style on freshly made corn tortillas. Chicatanas can also be eaten as a snack or used to liven up stews, soups and salads. Those with a sweet tooth can even add them to cake or cookie recipes or make their own chocolate-coated ants!
Escamole (ant larvae), or “Mexican Caviar” as it is sometime known, is another popular treat in the southern states. “They don’t pack much flavor. It’s more about what they’re served with,” Galloway says. “Alone they look similar to small curds of cottage cheese. The texture is somewhat similar as well. The most typical preparation is to serve them on top of a grilled nopal cactus lobe. Again one cannot avoid the corn tortillas and fresh salsa as an accompaniment.”
A business development and management consultant specializing in the Mexican and Latin American markets, Kenny Galloway has been an expat off and on for over 10 years and is currently working in the Peace Corps as part of the Technology Transfer Program, a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. An accomplished oenophile, he runs a popular wine blog in his free time.