Sample the Insect Buffet of Mexico City

PHOTO: CDMX

At the Mercado de San Juan in Mexico, sample everything from local fruits to toasted insects. While you’re there, take some iguana meat home with you.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that markets are the lifeblood of Mexico City. From stalls selling basic provisions to the Sonora market for all things witchcraft (love potion, anyone?), the city has over 300 permanent mercados and over a thousand tianguis, or open air stalls. The destination for local chefs and gourmands is the Mercado de San Juan Pugibet in historic downtown. Pungent with scents of fresh fruit, seafood, and traditional ingredients like epazote, dried cascabels, anchos (dried poblano chiles,) and chipotles, the 150-year-old mercado is a pre-Hispanic exploration of the city. But it’s also the go-to spot for hard-to-find and, let’s say unusual fare. Mescal-soaked candy, grasshopper salt, and ostrich eggs? Sure. A mind-blowing range of meats including crocodile, armadillo, and wild boar? No problem, they have those too.

fish
fruit
 Vanita Salisbury

 

Fruit vendors–of which there are many–are rightfully excited about their product.  I stopped to admire ready-to-eat bounty, and before any words were exchanged, my vendor plucked a guava–ubiquitous in everything including in my cocktail the night before–and sliced it open for me to taste, in true try-before-you-buy situation (if you’re not looking to purchase, a few pesos in the vendor’s bucket will suffice). As a food lover, I was a delighted: Here was a way to sample all the local fruits and take some home for later.

It’s the go-to spot for hard-to-find and, let’s say unusual fare. Mescal-soaked candy, grasshopper salt, and ostrich eggs? Sure. A mind-blowing range of meats including crocodile, armadillo, and wild boar? No problem, they have those too.

Passionfruit and dragonfruit followed, and then the rambutans, an Asian fruit also grown in southeast Mexico. It’s similar to its cousin lychee, but with a more spindly, menacing outer shell. The kidney-shaped ataulfo mango came after, native to Mexico, golden in skin, and so decadent it’s earned the nickname “Champagne mango.” But when my vendor reached for the mamey sapote, a rust-colored avocado-sized fruit with a taste as smooth as pudding, I had to stop him. I was getting full, and I had to save room for the scorpions.

Originally setting up shop as a tianguis selling basic foodstuffs, the origins of the San Juan market began 150 years ago. Fast forward a few decades and several incarnations later to 1955, when the current structure was built as part of Mexico City’s effort to regulate sales by small vendors. In 1970s, said vendors began to specialize in gourmet and exotic food, which only expanded over time as free trade agreements made international products more available. Today there are about 314 vendors, bringing gastronomic wonders to the heart of Mexico City, including the lobsters and humongous shrimp I was now passing in the seafood section.

San-Juan-Market-veggies
San-Juan-Market-veggies-atmosphere
CDMX

As I narrowly avoided a wet patch on the ground, I was grateful for my decision to wear easily-cleaned closed-toed shoes. To the right, red-eyed sharks were piled high on ice, to the left loomed huge pink octopi, and at my feet were bins of goose barnacles, a crustacean that attaches itself to rocks and is considered a delicacy. Straight ahead, skinned rabbits laid neatly in a row; nearby, goats and pigs were in the same arrangement. And around the corner were the cured meats and cheeses, also a major draw, with imported products and regional cheeses like queso fresca, queso oaxaca, and queso panela, a smooth cow’s milk cheese often used in nopal dishes.

chiles
 Vanita Salisbury

 

Today there are about 314 vendors, bringing gastronomic wonders to the heart of Mexico City, including the lobsters and humongous shrimp I was now passing in the seafood section. As I narrowly avoided a wet patch on the ground, I was grateful for my decision to wear easily-cleaned closed-toed shoes. To the right, red-eyed sharks were piled high on ice, to the left loomed huge pink octopi, and at my feet were bins of goose barnacles, a crustacean that attaches itself to rocks and is considered a delicacy. Straight ahead, skinned rabbits laid neatly in a row; nearby, goats and pigs were in the same arrangement. And around the corner were the cured meats and cheeses, also a major draw, with imported products and regional cheeses like queso fresca, queso oaxaca, and queso panela, a smooth cow’s milk cheese often used in nopal dishes.

Vanita Salisbury

But I was ready for the insects.  Edible insects are not hard to find elsewhere, but at the San Juan market, the grubs are a nod to the ancient Mexican tribes that have used insects as a sustainable and nutritious source of protein for hundreds of years, especially when meat was scarce. Today, Mexico City’s high-end restaurants also keep the tradition alive: The celebrated Pujol serves chayote squash and sea asparagus with maguey worm salt, Quintonil has a charred avocado tartare with escamoles (ant larvae), and at Guzina Oaxaca, you can have your tuna toast with chapulines (grasshoppers).

 

Trays of gusanos de maguey, the agave-adjacent caterpillars you’ll find in mescal, are offered braised, fried, or natural. I opted for one that was fried: it was nutty and airy, a bit like a worm Cheeto.

No, insects are not hard to find, but here in the market it is a virtual buffet. Trays of gusanos de maguey, the agave-adjacent caterpillars you’ll find in mescal, are offered braised, fried, or natural. I opted for one that was fried: it was nutty and airy, a bit like a worm Cheeto. Next to it, the fat bellies of the notoriously hard-to-harvest chicatanas (large flying ants native to the Oaxaca region) are toasted and a favorite in salsa, but used in everything from salads to stews. The chapulines were roasted with garlic salt and lime juice, and the escamole, nicknamed Mexican caviar, is reliably buttery. But I had come for the alacránes, or scorpion. They sat toasted behind their glass case, venom extracted beforehand but still intimidating.  I pointed to a large one, pincers ablaze.  It was placed on a styrofoam plate before me, topped with chili, and squirted with lime.

insects
San_Juan_Market_worms_scorpions
 Vanita Salisbury

 

I held it up in front of my mouth, closed my eyes, and bit into the bug. It tasted like shrimp.

How to Visit

On your own:

Be aware that there are two Mercados de San Juan in close proximity. This one is Mercado de San Juan Pugibet, Ernesto Pugibet 21 Col. Centro. The market is open daily.

Take a Tour:

Eat Mexico Culinary Tours offers a 3 to 4 hour walking tour combining street food with market. Participants sample Mexican cheeses, tostadas, pulque, and more.

The St. Regis Mexico City also offers informative tours of the market with its head chef, Olivier Deboise, wrapping up with a cooking class utilizing local ingredients. Open to patrons of the hotel.