In this episode of Chow-To, Guillermo visits chef Ivan Garcia at one of his restaurants in Brooklyn, Guadalupe Inn, to talk about chapulines (grasshoppers) in Mexican cuisine, and to learn how to make a delicious and nutritious dish that proves edible insects are nothing to fear.
Chef Ivan loves experimenting with flavors and cooking techniques to celebrate dishes and ingredients that are not commonly known outside of Mexico. His interest in cooking and eating insects comes from his culinary training in Puebla, and his love for Yucatan food. As a chef in NYC he wants to introduce his customers to these foods, and educate them on the rich flavors, histories, and nutritional value of pre-Hispanic ingredients.
To double down on this mission, we make a unique dish that combines blue corn sopes (thicker tortillas that work as mini, edible plates), and chapulines in pibil sauce (a sauce made using achiote).
Growing up, Ivan developed a passion for food while observing his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. Sadly, his interest in cooking was met by Mexico’s deeply rooted traditionalism and heteronormativity. Men in the kitchen were not a welcome sight, so it was not until he finished high school that he decided to pursue a culinary education in Puebla, the pride of Mexico’s rich culinary heritage. Being a gay man was also no easy fit within this sociopolitical context, which ultimately drove Ivan to migrate filled with dreams of being a chef, and living an open and honest life. The chef’s heart wrenching story of love and immigration was beautifully adapted to the big screen in the film “I Carry You With Me,” which premiered to critical praise at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Jump cut to the year 2000: Ivan is in NYC and working with acclaimed chefs in some big kitchens in the city. Through these experiences he develops his own voice as a chef, and begins dreaming up what one day will transform into the menus of his three Mexican restaurants in Brooklyn: Zona Rosa, Mesa Coyoacan, and Guadalupe Inn. All three menus are a beautiful celebration of ingredients and flavors unknown to most in the city (especially at the time the restaurants opened), unless they had done some food tourism in Mexico. All three restaurants have become very important parts of their neighborhoods. To help support them during the COVID-19 crisis, visit these GoFundMe links:
Ivan knows that beyond “decolonize your diet” fads, and the exoticisim that comes with introducing pre-Hispanic ingredients into predominantly white and westernized markets, there is good reason to study, develop, and educate consumers about the very real benefits of certain foods. Inspired by dishes and ingredients he discovered in markets and on tables across the Yucatan peninsula, he has taken his study of and interest in edible insects to unexpected places.
In 2017 he was one of the organizers and leading chefs in an edible insect festival out of Brooklyn, where participants not only tried insect-forward dishes and drinks out of multiple venues (including Guadalupe Inn, where Ivan had a bug brunch menu), they could also hear keynote addresses and see cooking demos.
The idea behind exposing consumers to edible insects is not only to open market opportunities, but to expand people’s palates and relationship to food. It also educates consumers on a source of protein that could arguably be the food of the future. Farming practices still need refining, but it’s a fact that a serving of grasshoppers has the same nutritional value of other animal protein, like say a steak (according to chef Ivan, “a taco with chapulines and guacamole can easily equate an 11-ounce skirt steak”).
Growing insects also requires less space and fewer resources, and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than raising, killing, and distributing chicken, pork, or cattle. The feed ratio is also remarkable when comparing raising any type of insect vs other animals. Insects are one of the most sustainable sources of protein, and potentially a very inexpensive one, which is why the United Nations and other global organizations look at insects as a possible solution to hunger problems in our future.
To find the best quality insects for his dishes, Ivan works with Merci Mercado, a small company based out of Brooklyn, founded by four young Mexican entrepreneurs with a passion for rescuing ancestral cooking ingredients and practices. They currently focus on developing fair-trade, high quality practices with insect farmers and producers in Mexico for export and distribution in the U.S., but they’re looking to expand into other “lost” ingredients too. They offer an incredible variety of seasonal insects, making them a trusted brand, and a favorite of chefs in several markets across the country.
The dish that I made with Ivan is a celebration of an insect (in our case chapulines, or grasshoppers) as the star ingredient. The chef experimented with several concepts and flavors until he found the perfect combination. Every ingredient and layer in our dish celebrates where chapulines come from, both in terms of their physical ecosystem, and their culinary origins.
As the base for our dish we have a sope, a thicker corn tortilla that gets pinched all around its border, making it an edible vessel for the other components. Ivan chose blue corn to make our sopes because of its high nutritional value, and how it visually played with the other colors on our plate. I found it added another symbolic layer, as corn and its colors and varieties play a very important role in the cosmology of ancestral Mesoamerican cultures.
Each sope then gets topped with a black bean puree, and fresh shredded lettuce. This layer to me is a metaphor of nature, of the ground and the grass, where grasshoppers grow and were harvested by the indigenous cultures that revered, prepared, and ate them. Then come our chapulines.
Ivan chose to give our grasshoppers the “al pibil” treatment. Pibil or “al pibil” is a popular technique in the Yucatan peninsula. The name is Mayan, and the traditional cooking method called for wrapping food in leaves and cooking them underground. Today, pibil is known for its bright red color and peppery and acidic flavor. It combines achiote (a pre-Hispanic seed sometimes known as annatto, used to dye fabrics, and to color and flavor dishes), and sour orange (brought to America by the Spaniards).
For our sauce, we enhanced the flavors by adding some white vinegar. After quickly roasting the grasshoppers, Ivan tossed them in the sauce, and we added them on top of the lettuce. To balance and brighten up the earthier flavors we then added a dollop of an avocado mousse (blended avocados with salt and lemon juice).
To finish it, everything gets topped with pickled red onion. Ivan says this is a necessary garnish/ingredient when serving something “al pibil.” The onions are pickled with white vinegar, habanero pepper, oregano, and salt. The bright-red grasshoppers with the avocado and onion are the perfect finishing touch to the sopes, elevating the ingredient to a beautiful and delicious place.
Try this dish with grasshoppers as written, or give our quick “al pibil” preparation a try with chicken or pork instead, and make this sauce part of your arsenal because it’s a game changer in terms of flavor.
Note: No matter what protein you use, be sure to make a batch of pickled red onions before you begin.