Worm Salt: What’s Up With That?

Okay, so the title is a tad misleading.  It’s not really “worm” salt, but rather larvae salt.  Does that make it sound better? Sal de Gusano is a Mexican condiment, primarily seen in Oaxaca, that comprises toasted and ground up “worms”, chiles and salt. And, while we’ve all heard about the worm in the bottle of mezcal (which is mainly gimmick) Sal de Gusano is something that’s regularly used and consumed.

To find out a bit more about this insect powder, I turned to Max Garrone who, among other things, runs the site Mezcalistas along with Susan Coss.  Max knows his business when it comes to mezcal and what one might serve with it.  He explains, “Sal de Gusano is used traditionally in Oaxaca when drinking mezcal. Generally, if you order a mezcal you’ll get a small plate with a bit of sal de gusano and orange slices on it alongside your mezcal. The idea is that you dip the orange in the sal de gusano and suck on it as you sit around sipping mezcal and chatting with friends. The salt, savory, citrus combination provides intense contrast with the mezcal and highlights different flavors in the mezcal.”

Sal de Gusano is made with the larvae of a moth that’s found in the agave plants used for mezcal and tequila production.  There’s not only something poetic about consuming the larvae of something originally growing in the product that you are consuming, but it’s also rather efficient. If left to their own devises, these moth larvae can eat up the heart of the agave.  So, by removing them, that just leaves more agave to convert into tasty drinks.

While many of us might squirm at the idea of eating insects, it’s not such a stretch in Mexico. On my last visit to Mexico City for Tales on Tour, I enjoyed a pretty amazing dish of escamol (ant larvae and pupae), served up at what is considered one of the Mexico City’s best restaurants, Pujol. And, yes, it was delish.

Max confirms this bug-eating tradition: “Insects are a huge part of the native pre-Hispanic cuisine and are used in all sorts of cooking. Sal de Gusano may be the most visible internationally, but in Oaxaca you can easily buy fried crickets in the markets and here in San Francisco there is a small business called Don Bugito, which is bringing ‘tasty edible insects’ to the US. It’s a very fertile subject”. (Incidentally,  you can also buy edible insects online in France)

I also checked back in with Phred (who you might remember from the Sangrita article) and he explains that eating insects in Mexico is “Much much more common than almost anywhere else. Many indigenous cultures (Tlaxcala, Monte Alban/Oaxaca, some of the Mayans, particularly in Chiapas) all extensively ate lots of insects, larvae, etc. Those cultures are still living and influence their regional cuisines extremely”.

And while Mexico might be all into the insects, Sal de Gusano is primarily a Oaxacan trend.  Max tells me, “It’s important to note that Sal de Gusano is really a Oaxacan thing. While insects are a core part of many Mexican cuisines, many other states either don’t make Sal de Gusano or use it with mezcal. As an example, in Michoacan tropical fruits are commonly served when you order mezcal, but no Sal de Gusano.”

You might, now, wonder just what it tastes like. Forget any “gross” associations you have with eating worms. Each one is different, but the nose is earthy, which I assume is as a result of both the larvae and the peppers. It’s a bit of an umami salt explosion. While the underlying base is the same, flavors vary with recipes depending on which salt, peppers and larvae are used.

Beyond just using it as a side to mezcal, there are other possibilities.  Max explains “Sal de Gusano is also finding different uses in cocktails and cooking. Bartenders are using it to rim cocktail glasses, sprinkling it on drinks, and mixing it into drinks as well. Cooks are using it as a condiment and mixing it into a variety of recipes. My guess is that it has long been used in the kitchen but now we’re seeing it pop up in all sorts of menus so it’s definitely been discovered as a versatile ingredient.” (I’m eating it on cheese toast as I write this article, Ed.)

I also checked in with Sebestien Gans, former head bartender of Candelaria who uses this salt to rim cocktail glasses.  Otherwise, he says “When I worked at Candelaria, I was looking to adapt the sal de gusano to create a cocktail with a strong Mexican identity.” But he thought that “the French customers were not ready to eat worms. So I used crickets, fleur de sel, coriander seeds, 3 kinds of chili. The cocktail was called “Luna Sylvestre” (pureed avocado, lime, tequila and cricket salt)” He reports that customers loved the Luna Sylvestre because it was both “meaningful and provoking.”

So, will Sal de Gusano become a mainstay in Parisian cocktail culture? Sebastien thinks no. He believes it will remain a confidential, cult ingredient. And, I have to agree.  Although some bartenders have asked him to sell them the cricket salt, so who knows….

There you have it, Paris. We may or may not soon be eating and drinking bugs soon. And, if we do, I’m on board!