Tasting Aztec culture: fried worms and ant eggs DATELINE: MEXICO CITY

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 09, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

MEXICO CITY -- Fortino Rojas isn't bothered a bit by the queasy looks on his customers' faces.

It sort of comes with the turf if your restaurant specializes in such delicacies as fried worms or ant eggs in green salsa to start and main course offerings such as rattlesnake, armadillo and flowers stuffed with fish.

When they ask for suggestions -- which almost all of them do -- Mr. Rojas, who is known as "Don Tino," snatches away the menus and promises to make them a meal fit for a king -- an Aztec king, that is.

Don Tino is chef at the world-famous Don Chon's restaurant in the heart of this city's historic central district. There's nothing fancy about the looks of this place. It is basically a dump, with wire chairs and dusty floors and decorated with animal skins, heads and skeletons.

But tourists from around the world trek through the deteriorating TTC neighborhood of narrow streets in search of Don Chon's to enjoy pre-Hispanic food. It is the only restaurant in the city dedicated solely to such exotic dishes.

"We are trying to preserve traditions of the Aztecs," says Alfonso Reyes, owner of the restaurant. "There are many influences, like McDonald's, that are making the foods of our ancestors disappear.

"We will not let that happen."

As he speaks, Don Tino emerges from the kitchen. He is built like a middle linebacker, and he stands over his customers' shoulders to check their reactions to his creations.

On this day, he has prepared a sampling of his favorite dishes for a small group of foreigners. There are inch-long worms, fried so that they taste like french fries; dried mosquito eggs that are stirred into an egg batter and fried like a small pancake; ground rattlesnake that tastes like fish; and clumps of a grassy plant called Romeritos covered in a thick black sauce.

Then Don Tino brings out a platter of grilled meats, including bison, deer and wild boar. And the favorite dish of all at the table is a plate of chrysanthemum flowers stuffed with fresh tuna and mushrooms.

4 "That's my own special recipe," Don Tino boasts.

Not available on this particular day are the grilled armadillo and lion.

Not that getting lion meat is that difficult in Mexico City. "There are three lion breeders in Mexico," assures Mr. Reyes. "Lions breed quite

well here. So many times, the zoos have too many of them and we buy them."

This pre-Hispanic stuff doesn't come cheap.

Mr. Reyes says a lion, for example, costs $2,000. Importing a buffalo from New Zealand can cost as much as $5,000.

Mr. Rojas, the chef, says that the restaurant was opened more than 50 years ago by his father, known by all as Don Chon. He became fascinated with pre-Hispanic foods when he worked as a bus driver, transporting people from rural villages into Mexico City, where they bought food and other supplies.

Oftentimes, his bus would break down while out in some remote area, and Don Chon would be stranded for days. People in the villages would welcome him into their homes and offer him food.

"These people still ate like the Aztecs," said Mr. Rojas. "They ate whatever the land produced. And my father learned how to cook."

After several years, Don Chon became tired of driving a bus and began to ponder new ways to make a living. He would still see many of his former passengers as they passed through town, and often they would complain that they could not find the kinds of foods that they were accustomed to back in their rural towns.

It occurred to Don Chon that he could provide that service.

"Since its beginning, the restaurant has been popular," says Mr. Reyes. "But now, we have just as many foreign customers as we have Mexican customers.

"Many Mexicans don't enjoy this food anymore, and for tourists, it's something new and interesting that they can go home and tell their friends about."

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