Chicatana ants are one of the more obscure delicacies in Mexican cuisine, yet their unique flavor and texture are fundamental to regional salsas and moles commonly eaten throughout Oaxaca’s diverse coastal areas, central valleys and mountains. They’re known to impart a crunchy, earthy, smoky flavor to whatever dish they’re added to, whether that’s making salsa or just sprinkling them on top of a dish for an added crunch and complexity (we love them sprinkled on half an avocado for an afternoon snack).
While grasshoppers, or chapulines, have really jumped in popularity over the past few years here in the US, they’ve long been a staple in Mexico, served toasted with chile and lime as a snack or to add a crunch on top of a dish, just like chicatanas. Perhaps eating insects hasn’t been the norm in the US in the mainstream culinary scene in the past (we could go on a long tangent here but we’ll save that for another day), but it’s a deep tradition in Mexico, and for delicious reasons.
As Mexico’s fifth-largest state, Oaxaca is made up of seven different regions, each with its own culinary ecosystems; and chicatanas are an equally appreciated delicacy in each of them. In other words, the rareness of chicatanas is due to their extremely limited availability, not their limited desirability.
These beautiful, big ants are harvested immediately following the first rains of the late spring/early summer season. The ‘harvest’ generally happens during an (increasingly) narrow time of year after the torrential rains have soaked the ground and left puddles in their wake.
The chicatanas take to the sky for a finite window of time, usually 1-2 days, as they flee their flooded nests in search of food and new shelter. Imagine small clouds of furiously flapping wings as these swarms of flying ants fill the air. The collection of the ants is done by hand in the middle of the night (usually between 2am – 4am with the aid of trusty plastic bags), and is an all-hands-on-deck effort to scoop them midair during this short window. During the “harvest”, not only are you trying to catch ants flying through the air with plastic bags, you’re also trying to avoid the ants’ painful bites, both from them landing on you, and from them crawling up your legs. The ants might be relatively small creatures, but their strong pincers deliver considerable discomfort. Some harvesters even go so far as to stand in buckets of water to ensure none of the ants from the floor can crawl up their legs – talk about dedication and tactful skill!
Once collected, the chicatanas are toasted on a hot comal and tossed with salt and sometimes additional spices. The cooking process removes their wings, and preserves the chicatanas for dry storage throughout the upcoming season, ensuring their quality stays intact.
The reward is worth the painstaking work, and it’s an accomplishment often celebrated with the shared enjoyment of one of the region’s popular chicatana-based dishes like salsa and mole. Typically, families who harvest chicatanas save a portion of their (toasted) harvest for consumption over the remainder of the year, and sell the remaining surplus chicatanas at the local market (or to local purveyors like Masienda!). While chicatanas might have once been more of an in-home mainstay, their recent crossover into high-end restaurant kitchens around the world, coupled with their fleeting availability means that chicatanas are increasingly valuable across the region’s food markets as well.
In their most traditional preparation, chicatanas are lightly toasted on a comal, mixed with spices and seasoned with salt, then blended using a molcajete (a traditional Mexican mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock) to create an aromatic, rustic, chunky salsa.
Vásquez Family Chicatana Salsa Recipe
- 4 ounces Chicatana Ants
- 4 ounces White or Yellow Onion
- 2 cloves Garlic
- 1/2 Chile Serrano
- 1 small Avocado Leaf toasted
- Salt to taste
- Blend ingredients in blender or food processor until smooth. Water may be slowly incorporated to achieve desired viscosity.
- Spoon on top of your favorite dishes or stuff into tamales, and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Many have tried to describe the distinct chicatana flavor, but truthfully it’s unlike anything you’ll have likely tried. It’s both smoky and earthy while also slightly bright in its inherent spice.
Other common – and equally delicious – chicatana preparations include moles and tamales. Their deep and complex flavor enhances any preparation. They can also be savored simply – crisped and served as a crunchy accompaniment to a copita of mezcal.
Interested in how some of our restaurant partners are using their chicatanas? See their applications below!
At Cosme in NYC, Chef Enrique Olvera and CDC Gustavo Garnica serves chicatanas on their fluke entree with romesco and green garlic, and sister property Damian uses them in a salsa macha on their celery root dish.
At Beverly Hill’s Mirame, Chef Joshua Gil serves Grilled Queso Anejo with artichokes, asparagus, and chicatana salsa.
However you choose to explore and enjoy one of Mexico’s most unique gastronomic specialties – chicatanas, you will be participating in a legacy of authentic regenerative foodways that honor both the land and its traditions.