Mezcal has become rabidly popular in just a few years—a tradition born in Oaxaca, channeled through Mexico City, and mainlined to urban centers all around the United States. At bars throughout Mexico, a small pour of the spirit is commonly flanked by slices of orange, seasoned with a sprinkling of worm salt—that’s right, worm salt, or sal de gusano, is a salt flavored with ground, toasted insects.
Before the high-end mezcal brands and bar-bros proselytizing the distinct qualities of agave distilled with breastplates of rabbit, there was salt. And in that salt, there were ground worms, a natural evolution of the already common process in Pre-Hispanic México of eating insects.
The worms, or chinicuil, used to make sal de gusano are actually moth larvae (Comadia redtenbacheri) which burrow through the root systems and leaves of the maguey plants used to make mezcal. The larvae eat the fleshy interiors of the pencas, the thick, spiny leaves of the plant, fattening and growing sweet until they are 5 to 7 centimeters in length and a bright red or off-white beige color.
The worms are harvested by hand, cleaned, and toasted on a comal, which turns them crispy and nutty in flavor. This preparation is a popular seasonal taco filling or just eaten as a snack—demonstrative of a life lived amongst the magueys, which are a versatile crop that yield spirits, syrups, other ferments like pulque, building materials, fibers, and shelter for animals and insects.
When ground with salt and dried chiles, the worms lend an earthy, umami-rich flavor to the salt that illuminates the wide spectrum of mezcal varietals, eaten in pinches, or sprinkled onto fruit to awaken and reset the palate. Sal de gusano is also used regionally in various dishes like sopa de guias, a soup made with squash vines, salsas, and agua frescas—basically anywhere one would use salt.
“We try and make a little magic with the flavors,” explains Imelda Raquel Meza Pacheco, the woman who produces sal de gusano for the popular mezcal brand, Union. Their salt is crafted to pair specifically with their mezcal, she explains, “It’s smoky, and roasted, it tastes a little like cumin, a little like sweet agave, it smells of the earth!” When preparing her sal de gusano she always uses the metate or molcajete, the traditional mortar and pestle, and her muscle power. “We believe using an electric blender robs the essence of the product.” she says.
At my restaurant in Mexico City, Cicatriz, we offer mezcal service with a little plate of chilled, cubed watermelon and jicama, sprinkled with lime and sal de gusano. Take a sip of mezcal, a nibble of fruit, and then another sip. The seasoning brightens and opens up new flavors in the spirit. Many other bars and restaurants are moving beyond the sliced orange, to pineapple, tomatillo, and apple, for example. Try it sprinkled over sliced fruit or vegetables in your home cooking, for appetizers or a snack. The salt has moved into the gourmet marketplace with new brands emerging every year adding ground hibiscus flower or hoja santa, to the mix, recommending users to think beyond mezcal and use this seasoning in their home kitchens. The salt is a great way to season sliced fruit plates or crudite platters at home. I also like to use it when seasoning pots of beans or earthy soups, like minestrone or squash. It can sing on platters of simply grilled vegetables—think corn, zucchini, and tomatoes. However you choose to incorporate it, you’ll be joining the long historical tradition of insect consumption. I’ll raise my mezcal glass to that.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious