Most of the world eats bugs. In fact, according to the New York Times, over a quarter of the human population enjoys scrumptious insects as part of everyday diet. “Only in the West have we resisted such gustatory pleasures” (Mishan, 2018). But in the Mejía Canton of the Andean highlands, bug eating represents more than just a culinary tradition; it is a once-a-year holiday event, drawing together families in a searching, sizzling, tasty experience.
For the indigenous Kichwa culture of Highland Ecuador, most of the year’s diets consists of fresh corn and potatoes, quinoa, soups, vegetables, dairy, chickens, and more. But, each year in the month of November, a special guest is included as a favorite gastronomical specialty: “catzo,” the small and elusive beetle that causes quite the hullaballoo.
An Insect Unique to the Andes
Endemic to and only found in the Andes Mountains, catzos are a fascinating species of ground beetle. They spend most of the year in the earth, as larva popularly known in Kichwa as “cusu.” However, between October and December, these complete their metamorphosis and are ready to burst up in the form of catzo. They are diverse, with a large variety in size, shape, and even color; but the favorite for food is a small, cream-colored (or light yellow, green) variety, only about 1.5 – 3 cm long (Catso, 2012).
Unlike some insects, which birth from their metamorphosis at any random time, catzos are perfectly synced in their biological clockwork. During the month of November, at 5am exactly, the newly-transfigured beetles all come bursting from the ground with new life. They fill the chilled, early-morning air with the sound of their wings, thousands whirring in unison. But if the insects begin to fly at 5am, by 5:15am, the world returns to complete silence; after only 15 minutes of catzo-filled blur, they return to their subterranean nests, not to be found again (Fuerez, 2016).
A Harvest that Takes Skill
Since the time of the pre-Colombian communities that inhabited the Andes, local knowledge has anticipated the catzo’s seasonal occurrence. For generations and generations, families have known the insect’s rare flight schedule. On these specific dates, and only if the weather is perfect for catzo flight, they travel to the “portreros” (large, open cow pastures). They know that the catzos will fly just in this environment, at 5am, after a day that starts with a hot morning sun, then experiences rain in the afternoon, and finishes with a clear night (“El catzo,” 2011). Far away from the city noise and contamination, entire communities gather, waiting silently in the darkness. They sit, still half-asleep, and shiver in the dew-filled grasses. But at once, they lean together with family and friends, awaiting the soon-beginning excitement.
Suddenly, movement. One beetle begins the ritual: the “compadre” (“Godfather”), as it’s known, flies out into the night. Then, as if on cue, thousands of beetles follow suite, filling the air and grass (Canton, 2019). Responding, the hunters jump up with plastic bag in hand, eager to trap the elusive animals. Young children aim and swat at the air, but they are novices; this method will never catch the quick-winged catzo. The task isn’t easy, in fact (although seasoned experts make it seem otherwise). It requires technique, and knowledge of the bug’s flight pattern. The best catzos to catch are small and white—even better if she is a female bearing eggs. These form the tastiest snack, and therefore also sell on the market for the highest price. Skilled catzo catchers look on the ground for this moving translucent color, and then use the plastic bag to pin the insect against the grass. A quick flick of the wrist then lands the prey in a bucket, quickly sealing the lid so that nothing escapes. The people move fast—obligated to move faster than the catzo—gathering as many as possible in the ever-narrowing window of the insect’s flight time (Fuerez, 2016).
With Careful Preparation
Finishing up a successful harvest, the work has really just begun. Families, now wide awake from the flurry of the adventure, trek back towards home. Many will most likely live in the mountain-hidden communities surrounding the extensions of pasture. Arriving, they will immediately douse the catzos—still living—in a bath of bread flour. The insects will be left in this state for hours, allowing them to clean out their systems before being cooked. By evening, they will be ready for the next step: carefully cleaning away their wings and legs, leaving nothing but the meaty content of the body. Finally, children will gather around as they hear the sizzling sounds, and smell the salty richness of pan-fried catzo. The delicious snack is always served with “tostado,” another local specialty very similar to corn nuts. It’s a once-a-year ritual, not to be missed by anyone.
Culture and Cuisine
Like all gastronomical traditions, “eating bugs” in fact carries a richness of knowledge, culture, and memory. Specifically, the experience of eating catzo is likewise an adventure rooted in history, and carried on into present practice. From the early-morning capture, to the day-long cleaning, to the final evening prize; it is the quintessential process of food collection, which reminds and inspires appreciation. Literally, the catzo births from the “Pacha Mama,” Mother Earth, giving to all those who venture towards the harvest. In Canton Mejía, Ecuador, this tradition lives on—benefitting visitors and locals alike with the resulting and unique culinary specialty.
- Canton Mejía. (2019). Gastronomía [Brochure]. Machachi: Author.
- Catso. (2012, July 11). Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://quitohabitatsilvestre.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/catso/
- El catzo es un escarabajo que se ‘cosecha’. (2011, December 11). El Comercio. Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/negocios/catzo-escarabajo-que-se-cosecha.html
- Fuerez, J. (2016). Catzos [Personal interview].
- Mishan, L. (2018, September 7). Why Aren’t We Eating More Insects? The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/t-magazine/eating-bugs-food-restaurant.html