SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – People living in a number of municipalities in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas wait excitedly every year for the rainy season to start so they can catch the edible ant known as the nucu, chicatana or tzizim.
Since the insect only comes out at night when the ground is damp, families of the region stay up all night hunting them with flashlights, oil lamps and candles.
They carry tin cans and pails to catch the creatures that will serve as a daily dish if they get enough of them, but will only be served on very special occasions if they catch but few.
In the month of May, the markets in Chiapas – one of the country’s poorest states – display baskets full of the tasty treat, while saleswomen travel several kilometers (miles) to offer their nucu haul to nearby municipalities for some extra and often much-needed income for their families.
Among the favored municipalities are San Cristobal de las Casas and the capital of Chiapas state, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
The bugs are measured out on small earthenware dishes to sell for an average 10 or 50 pesos (52 cents or $2.60) for some 50 or 100 grams of nucu ants.
An entire pailful costs up to 4,000 pesos ($208), so that on average the ant is more expensive than a kilo of beef.
Don Miguel Solano Garcia of Villa Las Rosas has known the chicatana all his life, and told EFE how his village and family go out looking for them every rainy season.
During the time of the “tzizim hunt, we look for them at night. Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don’t. When the ants are around we grab them, but not too many because we only use them to enjoy at home,” he said.
He added that this succulent insect starts coming out around May 15 and only “when it rains, because in dry weather it’s never around.”
Solano Garcia added that when the edible ant is about to make an appearance, people don’t sleep at night and go out to hunt for the insect that gives itself away by moving when attracted by light.
Nucu is considered a dish rich in proteins, as well as being exotic and aphrodisiacal. People are used to eating it cooked golden brown on an earthenware hotplate with a pinch of salt added to bring out the bug’s flavor.
Doña Luisa Santis Santis, 59, has been cooking nucu practically all her life. She told EFE that it’s her son who catches them and she who cooks them.
According to Doña Luisa, the recipe is simple and starts with browning slightly.
Then it’s “off with the wings (these ants have wings like a dragonfly), after which I wash it, add a pinch of salt, brown it a little more and it’s ready to go,” she said, who noted that it should be fried instantly so the ant doesn’t go sour.
Nucu-collecting families know the schedule of this odd ant. It only comes out between 11 pm at night and 3 am the next morning.
Locals say they have a lot of protein because they only eat corn, lemon flowers and flowers in general.