Mexico's cultural world is filled with wonders. One of its signature staples is the maguey worm, or as they call it in Spanish “gusano de maguey” of Chinicuiles. They are in fact not a worm, but a caterpillar. The maguey is more commonly known as the agave plant, much more widely known for producing some of the finest tequila. It is in this plant that the maguey worm builds its home and eats a feast to grow into a butterfly.
There is a variety of them, white and red are the most popularly used in Mexico. It dates back to the Aztecs as a great form of protein. Besides swimming in tequila bottles, they make crunchy fried delicacies, roasted, or are eaten alive. Its texture is soft and it has a sweet flavor unlike any other food we know, it is very distinct. They are commonly found in restaurants in Mexico and Central America and they are making their way to the United States.
What is the Maguey Worm?
This caterpillar is an insect larva that forms a jelly-like bed in the roots of the agave plant. Biologically it is the larval version of Comadia redtenbacheri, which is a moth found in North America's southern parts. In Mexico, they refer to it as gusano rojo “red worm” or as Chinicuiles.
The white worms, also called meocuiles, are the caterpillars of the butterfly known as “tequila giant skipper,” its biological name is Aegiale hesperiaris. The butterflies drop their eggs on the leaves of the agave plants where the larvae consume the roots and stems of the plant.
History of Gusano de Maguey
Indigenous tribes such as the Aztecs were known to consume the worm and they eventually made their way to Spaniard traditions. In the 1940s, Jacobo Lozano Paez was said to have invented the insertion of the worm in Mezcal bottles, which he sold in the 1950s. He thought it enhanced the flavor and marketed it in that manner. However, it evolved into something much bigger.
Various distillers noticed his success and different urban legends began defining the meaning of the worm. Some of these legends include:
- The worm is added to guarantee to the consumer an adequate amount of alcohol.
- The worm serves as a hallucinogen that enhances the alcohol.
- The worm signifies a tradition practiced for centuries by Aztec priests.
Whichever story is true, the maguey worm has certainly become an exotic tradition that sets Mexico apart globally. Its popularity has made mezcal and tequila extremely well-known spirits across the world. An estimated 130 countries consume this worm as a source of protein. Not only is it tasty, but it is also fun to look at and the stories around it are fascinating and mystical.
Today, the maguey worm is not only popular in alcohol bottles, but its culinary uses are also traveling to other parts of the world. It is served in an assortment of unique creations that make it a central part of whatever recipe it is in. Next, we'll explore how Mexicans have used this special worm for centuries and still make it part of their tradition.
Uses of Gusano de Maguey
Presently, these worms are popular in the production of Mezcal, which is produced in the Oaxaca state of Mexico. It is actually not found in tequila bottles as most people think, instead, you'll find it in a similar liquor, Mezcal.
The white and red worms are prestigious delicacy in Mexico. As a strong source of protein for the Aztecs, you now find it in the culinary world in various creations. The worms are harvested in the central states of Mexico and sold to local markets where they commonly are dried and hung in strings, like a necklace of worms.
These mezcal worms also make it to the fine restaurants that create luxurious interpretations of traditional dishes. Culinary masters use their nutty taste to add flavor to mole, they are served as tacos with homemade tortillas and guacamole, or used to add texture to soups.
The worms are also ground up to make a seasoned salt called “sal de gusano” where the worms are mixed with salt and red chile. The salt is simply served on the table to sprinkle on the food, and it also makes its way to cocktails served with slices of lime. This smokey salt has become very popular in the United States in Mexican restaurants. It has gained a sort of cult following.
The maguey worms have endless possibilities in the culinary world. Sometimes they are made into candies covered in chocolate or sprinkled with chili. They are making their way into commerce with more than 120 businesses dedicated to offering these edible insects. Now, farms in the United States are producing these critters locally. However, many still source these worms directly from the agave fields of Hidalgo and other regions of Mexico.
Concluding our tour of the prized maguey worms, we want to highlight the symbolism that this tradition has. Many people see a beautiful circle come around as they eat the worm that eats the plant that makes the drink you enjoy. It is a great way to taste each part of the process and all its participants.
It is also a way to prevent these worms from eating the plant from the inside out. The plant survives to create wonderful liquor and we enjoy the wonderful taste the worm provides. Ancient traditions know these worms to have healing properties that promote strength and vitality making it another reason to enjoy them.
The tradition that was once almost lost is now not only being revived but is rising with great momentum of global enthusiasm to make them part of exotic dishes, snacks, and drinks. In fact, I'm trying to see how to incorporate the worms in my famous tequila turkey brine! The growing mezcal culture is further helping bring these worms into mainstream culture. Mezcal worms not only complement the taste of various items but also create a magical story around them. Cheers to these beautiful and tasty worms!