One of the very best things about London is the fusion of cultures. I’ve been invited to homes of friends from places like Lithuania, Pakistan and Uganda for home-cooked meals of food from their countries, have had food cooked for me by Korean, Indian and Mongolian friends just as if they would make it in their own countries.
Lately, W has been telling me about how his family in Colombia trap giant ants (about an inch long) which are called “hormigas”. They pull off the wings and legs and toast them for hours in a pot over an open fire. They are enjoyed as a snack and people keep whole jars of them to munch on. Reminiscing about the ant farm I had as a child, I cringed.
W comes from the Santander region of Colombia, a place where Guane Indians were the area’s indiginous people. They used to use the ants as part of a complicated mating ritual. It is still believed that “hormigas” are an aphrodisiac and have youth-giving powers. They are harvested during the rainy season, around this time, and sold in various forms on the streets and in the shops of the region. They have even made their way to the Europe where they have been called the “cavier of Santander”.
A few days ago, I was in Selfridges, browsing summer dresses with high hopes that the sun will soon return to London’s grey skies, and noticed some people making disgusted noises by a shelf nearby. I walked over to investigate and what do you know – there was, among scorpians and spiders, a jar full of edible, toasted “hormigas” from Colombia. I had to buy them for W because he wouldn’t believe it. £15 later, I walked out with a small jar of giant toasted ants in my bag.
When I presented W with my findings later that night, he was surprised I found his favourite snack in this country and promptly unscrewed the lid, pulled out a long brown body and tossed it into his mouth. I could hear the crunch. I covered my ears and grimaced. Then, of course, he held out the jar with a grin and offered me one. I looked inside. A clump of hard brown bodies. Heads. Legs. No.
But he insisted and the adventurous side of me gave in. After looking at them for a while, trying to imagine they were not once flying around an anthill in South America with long wings and wiggling legs, I picked one up. It stared back at me with dead eyes. W was watching me intently, reaching for a few more to crunch on while I contemplated putting the little creature in my mouth. He said, “You can’t just swallow it either. You have to keep it in your mouth until you chew it all up and really taste it.”
Really taste it. Ok, in the mouth it goes. Crunchy. Crunchy. Soft inside. A few scratchy legs. Tastes like bacon? Crispy, fried bacon with a soft meaty centre and crunchy, salty, pop-corn textured outer shell. Earthy.
Not bad, actually. Believe it or not, I even took a second.