Early in the morning, Volkswagen vans start clacking up the hill that stands above the city of Taxco. The engines strain as the incline grows steeper. Near the summit, the paved road gives way to a dirt path, and passengers are lightly tossed up from their hard seats by ruts, gutted out by previous night’s rainstorm. Wagonload after wagonload are deposited at the forest hilltop to search under stones and wet logs for beetle-like insects called jumiles.
It’s “Dia de Jumil” in Taxco, always the Monday after Day of the Dead, when the people of the town climb Cerro de Huixteco to collect the bugs. They are eaten — live, in tacos, and — more popularly and easily — ground up in salsa. Dia de Jumil is essentially village fair — like any other — but timed to celebrate the migration of these edible insects.
The forest was cool and damp despite the clear day and the heat of the lower altitudes. Expecting something more traditional at the top of the hill, I was surprised to find tables set up selling Coke, chips, and an array of packaged, sugary candy. Soon, a family approached, curious where we were from. They quickly offered us a bug from their bag. Among the sticks and half decomposed leaves, crawled dime-sized, flat insects, with little, crooked legs.
The mother holding the bag motioned, pinching and pulling her hands to her mouth, “Try one.” I think she was disappointed that the foreigner popped one in his mouth and crunched without hesitation. A French visitor accompanying us put up more resistance, and soon became the butt of jokes.
After asking how to find jumiles, we set off, looking under rocks, logs, and leaves as we were instructed. The hunt wasn’t successful. In the end, we came away with five, looking lonely in their bag.
We passed the family again. They ran over, handed me their catch, and wished us well. It turns out that of the people we spoke with, few were very enthusiastic about using the insects as food, preferring them as an excuse for a village party. Scratch games of soccer, families picnicking on sandwiches and tacos — not on insects — seemed the main attraction of the day. We left the hillside, our sweatshirts infused with deep woods and damp-smoky bonfires.
Jumiles, they say,”pica,” a pun, as the word both means, “they’re spicy,” and “they bite.” They don’t bite, but while they are not hot like chilies, the insects taste heavily of iodine. The taste is so intense, in fact, that they do taste somewhat picante. Jumiles lack the potency of chilies, however. When ground into salsa, they don’t infuse the sauce with fire, so much as they add a strange, slightly sweet chemical taste.
This past week in Cholula, a small city in Morelos, I ran across similar insects being sold in the market. The merchant identified them as “Chumiles,” and they were smaller cousins of the ones that I had eaten in Taxco. They are collected from under stones in the forests around Morelos.
The recipe the merchant suggested was identical to that from Taxco. Mix a good amount of chumiles — as she sold them a cupped fistful, probably about 75 insects — with a little onion and garlic. Grind them by hand in a molcajete, add tomatillos, lightly grilled on a comal, and continue grinding until the consistency is even.
The salsa is hardly spicy. Green serano chiles can be added, but the resulting heat overwhelms the delicate taste of the insects.
Though they are about a half or a third of the size, eaten alone, chumiles taste similar to jumiles, but more concentrated than their larger cousins, and they seem to me to add a sweeter taste.
The resulting salsa has a different texture. Shards of little exoskeleton shells remain, and you find yourself picking out the occasional leg or antennae from between your teeth — perhaps why the sandwich and soda stand did good business on Dia de Jumil.