Cactus for breakfast?
…and other ways to bite into Mexico

by Michele Peterson

“Go ahead. Just pop it in your mouth, ” urged the market vendor as she held out a shiny red grasshopper. “You’ll love it.” I was on a walking tour of Puerto Escondido, a beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast, two hours north of Huatulco, Oaxaca and this was the final stop on a culinary odyssey through the town’s history, culture and indigenous traditions.

But as I stared at the grasshoppers, known as chapulines, I realized I had met my moment of truth. Although the grasshoppers had been toasted, tossed with chile and sprinkled with lime juice, I had one question. Would I be able to eat an insect?

Our group of six culinary adventurers had begun our tour at the marina on Playa Principal, a palm-fringed beach in Puerto Escondido’s historic centre, three hours earlier. Led by local food aficionado Gina Machorro, we watched the fleet of white, blue and red fishing boats unload their slippery haul.

“Fishing is an important part of the economy and culture here, “ explained Machorro. “Each December 18th, the statue of the Virgen de la Soledad, patron saint of Oaxaca and protector of fishermen, is taken from the cathedral and placed in a fishing boat to lead a procession of vessels known as the ‘blessing of the fishes.'”

After ogling the fish — sailfish, tuna and marlin — we stepped inside nearby El Dorado restaurant for breakfast. No bacon and eggs for us. We were going local and that meant frijoles de la olla (black beans), tortillas and grilled nopal cactus, also known as prickly pear. Nopal is so important to Mexican history and culture, it’s even pictured on the Mexican flag.

“Cactus for breakfast?” asked one of the men in our group as he tentatively took a bite. The pale ovals looked more like green beavertails than vegetables. Harvested from the dry foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, the cactus had been peeled to remove the thorny rind and then grilled.

“Nopal is packed full of antioxidants, ” said Machorro. “It even boosts the immune system.”

I took a bite and was rewarded with a slightly tart, refreshing taste reminiscent of just-picked green beans.

After breakfast, we hiked through Puerto Escondido’s cobblestoned back streets, foraging for wild edibles such as basil, tamarindo and epazote, a leafy, peppery herb, along the way.

“Epazote reduces flatulence from black beans, ” explained Machorro, as she held out a sprig of the minty leaf. Everyone looked embarrassed, but nodded in appreciation. The herb had been in our breakfast beans.

We moved from savoury to sweet at our next stop, a tamale shop, where Ines, an efficient woman in a splattered apron presided over the production of 800 tamales a day. She was famous for her Oaxaca mole negro, a complicated spicy-chocolate sauce that takes hours to prepare.

“Sixteen spices go into my sauce, ” she said as she peeled open a banana leaf wrapper to reveal a packet of steamed corn filling. We dug into the tender dough and the burst of rich chocolate was pure magic.

“I’d like to buy some, ” said one woman in our group.

“Too late, ” said Machorro. “You’ve got to order three days in advance. But you can buy some chocolate and make your own”

The Mayordomo chocolate shop was an education and a taste sensation all in one. Using tiny spoons we sampled moliendo de chocolate (ground chocolate) and ordered custom blends of Oaxacan cacao, cinnamon, almonds and sugar.

Then it was time for the market, our final stop.  On Saturdays, when hundreds of indigenous Mixteco and Zapotec vendors pour in from the surrounding countryside, it’s a raucous mix of vegetables, livestock and shouting. We learned how to identify pimiento gorda, discovered chico (a fruit that tastes like caramel) and peeked inside a bowl of black river snails. The deeper we went into the labyrinth of food stalls, the more fascinating it became.

Then I came across a basket brimming with red grasshoppers, a regional delicacy.

Chapulines?” asked the vendor dangling one in front of my nose. I’d already eaten cactus and a weed from the side of the road. How bad could an insect be? Then inspiration hit.

“I’ll take a half kilo to go, ” I said. Everything tastes better slathered in Oaxacan chocolate.