Travel journalist Dea Birkett tests her taste buds with a foray into Mexico City's latest food craze - the sometimes grisly cuisine of the ancient Aztecs.
What was on Montezuma’s menu? That’s the latest concern of Mexico City’s chefs, as the craze in the capital is for food to reflect what the Aztecs ate over 500 years ago.
Chicken burritos are taboo at top tables. (The Aztecs didn’t eat chicken, preferring dog.) In Aztec times, you had to eat whatever you could scavenge – from the ground or on plants. And the most nutritious food the hunters found was bugs and grubs. But where once pre-Columbian cuisine was devoured out of necessity, now it’s uber-cool to declare a penchant for magüey (similar to cactus) worm and have a prediliction for snacking on ants’ eggs.
In the courtyard of the smart El Bar at the Four Seasons colonial-style hacienda hotel in the Paseo de la Reforma on the edge of Mexico City’s University area and Chapultepec Park, the local elite crunch onchapulines (grasshoppers) lightly fried with coriander and escamoles (the eggs of a giant black ant). An outdoor brazier keeps them warm in the chilly evenings.
I scoop up my crispy dish of chapulines. It’s not so much the flavour that’s challenging; it’s that I can’t forget the salty barbequed matchstick I’m crunching is, in fact, an insect’s upper thighbone. Splinters get stuck between the teeth. Was this what they meant by Montezuma’s revenge? The escamoles taste rather like soggy popcorn. I smother them in salsa and wrap them up in a tortilla. My magüey worms have a strong resemblance to maggots. I feel as if I’m in Roald Dahl’s The Twits, tricked into eating a plate of Wormy Spaghetti. It’s a meal that needs to be washed down. I go for a bottle of Pacifico beer. More authentically, I should have joined the cashmere-clad couples and diluted my arthropods with a toloache drink, made from the roots of a giant flowering plant, which is said to make your companion fall in love with you.
The Four Seasons is dedicated to this 500-centuries-old cuisine’s revival. It even boasts a pre-Hispanic breakfast. The speciality omelette is made with zucchini flowers and huitlacoche - ‘aged corn’. ‘Aged’ is a polite euphemism to put on the a la carte. The corn is so old it’s gone rotten and black with mould. I found the texture a bit mushy, but when I closed my eyes it could be quite tasty, like marmite on soggy cotton wool. Connoisseurs of the New Aztec cuisine fondly call huitlacoche Mexican truffles. (In similar hope, they dubescamoles Mexican caviar.)
Don’t imagine turning the clock back to pre-Columbian times means the prices will deflate accordingly. Eating like an Aztec can be expensive. But there are a few places where Aztec food is served up without an achingly cool coating. At the café-style Fonda Don Chon restaurant, a short walk from the historic centre, my fellow diners were root-conscious Mexico City bohemians and local families, rather than business people. A stuffed armadillo stands in the doorway, tatty from being stroked. (Armadillo in mango sauce – an Aztec feast – is one of the restaurant’s seasonal dishes.) There’s a curling poster of the emperor on the wall as if he were the local football hero.
If the clientele is less chic, the cuisine is more challenging. Best to leave the Spanish dictionary back in the hotel room and delete your iPhone’s translation app, as you don’t always want to know what you’re eating. I had the ant eggs sauted in butter as a starter. I discovered smothering them in raw onion and chilli sauce gave them a crunch and bite they otherwise lacked - unless they’d hatched.
I settled back and watched the families on the other tables, with piles of grasshoppers, worms and grubs in shared bowls in front of them. I ordered wild boar for my main course, an Aztec emperor’s favourite. I realized that I was beginning to enjoy all these unfamiliar gustatory textures, as if my tongue had learnt an entirely new culinary language. There isn’t much difference, after all, between grasshoppers’ thighs and frogs’ legs. I toast the Aztec emperor’s exquisite palate with another Pacifico and call over the waiter. ‘Más escamoles, por favor.’