Friday, July 23, 2010

TSI 2010 - Grasshopper Tacos

I have a conversation at least once a year with students about what they eat. It usually starts when I mention that I’ve had tacos with lengua (beef tongue) and they blanch. Who eats beef tongue? Ick!

Actually, it’s quite good, and I use the example to make the point that what we consider edible depends primarily on what we’re used to eating by the time we’re adolescents, our attitudes are set, and the mere sensual experience of taste matters little. In other words, I think there’s a point where our appreciation of taste becomes not physical but psychological and cultural. And in the mix, novelty becomes intimidating while familiarity becomes comforting.

Case in point: I marinated and grilled chicken hearts for my book club last year as part of a Brazilian themed dinner. Grown men declined to try them, despite that fact that Americans, according to the American Meat Institute, consume over 85 pounds (based on “retail weight”) of chicken each year, and the heart, like much of the rest of the chicken we eat, is merely muscle.

Given that living involves experiencing, and experiencing involves one’s senses, it is curious to me that we so willfully limit the experience of one of the most pleasurable of senses – taste.

That's my preamble to the most interesting meal I had during the Teaching Shakespeare Institute which came from Oyamel, a restaurant near Chinatown that takes a fusion approach to regional Mexican cuisines and serves its offerings tapas style. My friend Martha Anderson and I began with an excellent ceviche de cayo de hacha con limon y chile. That’s a small bay scallop topped with a tiny slice of blood orange and sitting on top of a tequila and ancho chile sauce covered key lime. You pick up the key lime and take the whole scallop in your mouth while squeezing the lime gently to get a sort of citrus chaser.

(If you’re making this at home, know that Oyamel serves these on a plate of rocks, which keep the limes from rolling over and dumping the little scallop towers onto the plate. If you believe that great dining involves not just taste but a visually pleasing arrangement, then Oyamel’s plating adds a lot to the experience.)

Martha and I also selected a variety of tacos: chicken with guacamole, beef tongue with radishes, fish with red onions and cilantro, and chapulines. Chapulines is Spanish for grasshoppers. I’d never heard of grasshopper tacos let alone tried them. Oyamel claims they’re a Oaxacan specialty and sautées them in onion, garlic and tequila. They’re fairly salty and taste a little like dried, grilled beef, with a slight crunch. Right now, a number of you are probably thinking you'll never, ever, ever knowingly eat anything with bugs in it. All I ask is, if you've never tried something like chapulines, that you consider how much your attitude comes from a reality-free perception. Tasting is believing, and great food deserves a chance without prejudice.

In short, the chapulines tasted great. And it’s nice to know that in the coming economic or environmental apocalypse, I’ll be happily surviving the collapse and subsequent looting of Cub Food, Safeway, and Piggly Wiggly by capturing, sautéing, and eating the bugs in my backyard.


(Photo credit: The grasshopper taco pictured above comes from the blog “Girl Meets Food.” Many thanks to Mary for its use, and if you’re in the Washington, DC area and want great recommendations for adventures in dining, read Mary’s blog.)

No comments: