Hormigas culonas ants, food of Santander, Colombia
SAN GIL, Colombia- It did not take long until I saw the arrays of little plastic containers stacked up in the shop windows of San Gil. They looked as if they were full of little black marbles, but they wern’t: they were full of ants. Big black dead ants with incredible asses. No, this was not the raw materials for an entomology lesson or the trophy room of an exterminator, but a small outlet selling food. These ants were cooked and prepped to eat.
Hormigas culonas, meaning literally “big ass ants,” are a type of leaf-cutter known scientifically as Atta laevigata. They are a seasonal delicacy of the Santander region of Colombia, and are harvested with gusto each year. It is said here that either the Santandereanos eat the ants or the ants will eat them, and they seem to have taken this impending threat to heart, as all through the city of San Gil you can find shops selling cooked and salted ants during the spring and summer months. The practice of eating these ants in Santander is said to have been started by the Guane Indians, and, after slowly acquiring a taste for them, the Spanish began cultivating them as well. Today, people continue to eat them with gusto.
As I peared into the little plastic containers at the ants within it became obvious that their nomenclature does not lead one astray. These little ants have developed disproportionately sized asses — or, abdomens — protruding from their otherwise dinky bodies. “This name is the exact, graphic way of calling this nutritious and delicious hymenoptera,” quoted Hormigas Culonas: Big Ass Ants.
“How do they get the ants?” I asked the shop keeper
“They go out in the mountains and take them,” she answered with simple indifference.
“How are they killed?” I asked.
“They are cooked,” the shop keeper answered as though I were a fool.
I was about to follow up this question of how the roasters can get hundreds of live ants into the pan without them all running away, but thought better of it — I was not really getting too far with my inquiries. The ants were here, they were dead, they were ready to eat. I was annoying the vendor by asking questions beyond this. I purchased a small bag.
Upon returning to my hostel, I poured out the bag of ants onto a table. My two year old daughter was pushing in to get a better look, my wife was avoiding the proceedings at all costs. I passed a roasted ant over to my daughter, and she gobbled it down without hesitation and asked for another. After this quick quality control test, I deemed it safe to try one myself. I put an ant into my mouth. Like popcorn, I felt it pop and crunch as I chewed. If blindfolded, I would not have known I was eating an insect if it were not for their spindly legs getting caught in my teeth and poking my tongue. The taste? Well, they hardly had one. As with most insects, there is little flavor packed in these hormigas culonas. Rather, all you taste is the salt and oil they are roasted in. It is the texture, the crutch — not the taste — that is the main attribute of eating ants.
They were truly not bad, and I would more than likely eat them regularly if they were cheaper. Especially as the health benefit of eating ants is incredible. Packed full of protein and B vitamins, ants are an incredibly nutritious snack.
I later found out that hormigas culonas are toasted alive, and that these ants can only be collected for around two days a year. Sparked by the heavy rains of spring, the queens and drones leave their subterranean homes and invade the upper regions of the world in search of new locations to establish their new colonies. This usually occurs during the Semana Santa holy week, and many people in rural areas go out to catch them with their children. Only the queen ants are collected, and it is said that that once processes they are more sought after than bread, and selling them is a lucrative seasonal business in these parts. When I arrived, in September, the yearly stock of ants was about gone. I could only get the left overs.
As hormigas culonas are a once a year delicacy, they are also relatively expensive. One pound of ants retails at three times the price of coffee. I bought a small ziplock bag of big ass ants for 2,000 pesos — $1.20 — that was not much larger than a dime bag, and I think I got a good deal. Other merchants that I inquired about the price of these ants tried charging double this amount. One kilo of hormigas culonas comes in at around 25 USD.
But there is another reason why the people of Santander eat these ants which does not have to do with taste or nutrition. There is a certain amount of truth in the adage that if the Sandanderos did not eat the ants the ants would eat them. Hormigas culonas are a relatively large variety of ant and they come equipped with very strong jaws. If there is enough of them, they can chew through just about anything. In the book, 100 years of solitude, a child is eaten by these ants, and they will often eat farmer’s crops, homes, anything that falls in their path during their yearly swarm. So eating hormigas culonas is not just a culinary delicacy, but a defensive move by the people of Santander — and a good alternative to pesticides.
The people here in Santander eat these ants like peanuts — as a snack with beer or lunch. There is nothing gross or disgusting about this, and once you become accustom to eating insects they are no more novel than any other food that you will encounter in your travels.