It was late in arriving but the first rainfall of the year has given the coastal region a thorough soaking, bringing relief from the hotter than normal temperatures of May.
But that’s not all the wet weather brought.
With it came what many regard as a special treat: the annual appearance of the chicatanas, a flavorful — and nutritious — Oaxaca delicacy known in English as flying ants.
Chicatanas are a type of leaf-cutter ant whose large brown-red colored body and prominent wings identify an insect that’s a well-known part of Oaxacan culture and cuisine.
Sarahi Sandoval Velas has lived in Puerto Escondido her entire life and notes the yearly importance of the chicatanas. “[Collecting them] is like a big party. Everyone goes out with their family, in the early morning, collecting chicatanas. But that tradition is becoming less and less common.”
Velas acknowledges that many people in Puerto have lost the essence of the “chicatana culture,” which is much more than just eating them. It’s the process of collecting, preparing, and enjoying them each year with family. However, she believes that in nearby rural towns, the tradition continues.
“I used to live in the countryside, close to [Puerto]. I saw the collection process each year.”
That process starts even before the chicatanas come out. With the approach of the rainy season, usually at the beginning of June, people start looking for the chicatanas’ nests.
“Their nests are bigger [than other ants], about the size of a 10-peso coin. But when they’re going to come out soon, they start preparing by making the hole much much larger. They’re like little mountains of dirt. And they eat all the plants outside of their anthill.”
Velas says they consume every plant in sight as they prepare to start new colonies. But the process is seen as a nuisance by many whose gardens get destroyed. “It drives my mother crazy. They eat all her plants.”
Destroyed plants can also be a sign to savvy chicatana hunters that the ant will soon make an appearance. Once the nests are identified, people cover them in order to catch the insects. But they aren’t covered with just anything.
“The container has to be just right, with the opening big, but not too big, similar to a water jug. People use clay pots. If it’s not right, you won’t catch anything and you might as well just look [for them] in the lights.”
Chicatanas are drawn to light. However, since there’s so much light in the cities, you’ll find a lower concentration than by using light in rural areas.
Some people place a tub of water under a light to catch the bugs, Velas says. “If you don’t catch them in water and just try to sweep them up they’ll be covered in dirt. It will give your salsa a gritty texture.”
She also says that even though many people look for them at the beach, it’s not the best place to find them. The sand is hard to rinse off and will likely become a part of your dish.
Once the ants have been gathered, it’s time to cook. After a quick rinse in water, the chicatanas are placed on the comal. “First you grill them so that the wings come off. But you can’t cook them too much or they lose a lot of their flavor . . . After the wings come off you just cook them a little bit more with garlic and chile.”
Many use chile del arbol, but Velas prefers the spicier version made with chile costeño. The perfect type of chile and amount to use seem to depend largely on personal preference.
Then it’s to the blender. Well, traditionally, the salsa is made with a molcajete, a stone tool similar to a mortar and pestle that’s used in the making of many Mexican salsas. Velas notes that the salsa has a much better texture when made this way but since the process is more arduous, many people opt for a blender.
Chicatanas, garlic, chile, and hot water are blended together to create the highly anticipated salsa. While the sauce is the most well-known chicatana delicacy, many use the ants in other ways such as in mole served with pork or tamales.
What do you put the salsa on? Velas throws her hands into the air at the question” “Anything!”
If you’re not up for collecting your own chicatanas, you can find them already cooked at the market, just waiting to be made into a salsa.
Joaquín has a stand in Mercado Benito Juárez in the center of Puerto Escondido where he sells local treats such as mole and chocolate, and during this season, chicatanas. The little bags of grilled chicatanas go for 100 pesos. For a kilo, the cost is 2,000 pesos.
Joaquín acknowledges the exclusivity of the insect, which is found mainly in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla. “Chicatanas only come out a couple of days a year . . . They’re exotic . . . And each year there are fewer and fewer.”
This makes sense considering the queens are the ants that come out of the anthills in order to create new colonies. Since more and more people are consuming them, fewer are able to make colonies and reproduce. With a reduction in the population of chicatanas, and a higher demand throughout the state and country, the price will likely continue to rise.
Joaquín mentions the technique and experience it takes to collect and cook them correctly. It’s certainly not easy. The ants even have a tendency to bite. He purchases them already grilled as the collection and cooking process has its own unique art. And while he doesn’t collect them himself, he certainly enjoys eating them in salsa or with pork and mole.
In his opinion the salsa has to be prepared with a molcajete and not a blender. When asked which type of chile is best, he didn’t miss a beat: “It’s a mix, chile de arbol and chile costeño. That’s the best flavor.”
It seems every family has its own variation of salsa chicatana, with no two recipes exactly alike. However, the same basic ingredients are there.
Here’s one version courtesy of a Puerto restaurant owner.
- 200 grams of grilled chicatanas
- 5 chile guajillos
- 4 chile costeños
- 2 chiles de arbol
- 1 tomato
- 1 small onion
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Prepare the ingredients by deseeding the chiles, cutting the onion, and smashing the garlic.
- Sautee the ingredients with a little bit of oil.
- Place everything in the blender
- Add chicatanas to the blender at the end.
- Optional: add hot water little by little for the consistency of your liking
No matter the recipe you follow, be sure to blend the chicatanas well. If not, you’ll have a “rough” texture that won’t make eating them a pleasant experience.
And if you don’t want to make your own salsa from scratch there are plenty of market vendors, such as Joaquín, who are happy to accommodate your insect cravings. While his stand only has bags of grilled chicatanas, there are others that sell bottles of the salsa already prepared.
El Sol de Puerto