They’ve arrived. The air in Mogotes is thick with their distinct scent. It’s woodsy, smoky, meaty.
Colombians call them Hormigas Culonas. Foreigners refer to them as the “Big-Ass Ants”. They’re shiny, about as long as the top joint of your thumb, body split into three sections, long transparent wings attached, little pinchers on the head. In the Santander region of Colombia, the giants ants a favorite snack, a delicacy. (They are also believed to be an aphrodisiac.)
Salted and fried, they taste a bit like bacon.
Around this time of year, they emerge from the ground to mate in the air. The females (they only eat the women) are snatched up and brought home in plastic bags, still alive.
Families gather around kitchen tables, a bit of Latin American music in the background and they set to work. The ants crawl slowly over one another in metal pots, awaiting their destiny.
It reminded me a bit of the Autumn chowder season back home, a slightly festive atmosphere, anticipation to taste the final product, family laughing and chatting around the table. They’re having some tea and doughtnuts (or in this case, agua panela and arepa)…
Only instead of chopping carrots and celery into bits, they pluck the heads, legs and wings off the ants. Everyone takes a handful, plops them, still crawling slowly, in front of their place at the table. One by one, they are beheaded.
How to prepare an ant: Grab the middle section of the body and hold tightly. With the other hand, quickly snap off the head sideways, avoiding pinchers. Now that the ant can’t see, you’re free to pick off the legs and the wings in any order. You may feel like a sadistic child pulling the legs off a helpless daddy-longlegs, but at least this has a purpose…
What is left of the ant is tossed into a bowl. This half and the other bits on the table are all still squirming. Everyone chats, laughs, enjoys. When the pots are empty and the bowls are full, they are taken to the kitchen.
Here, they are washed through a strainer many times over then left overnight to soak in a pot of salted water.
At some point, death sets in.
The next day, it’s time for the frying. The ants don’t require oil because they secrete their own so not to worry about that. They cook for just under two hours, constantly stirring. Any remaining wings that didn’t get plucked the night before will fall off during cooking and either stick to the side of the pan or your spoon. The whole kitchen smells like bacon frying on a campfire in the woods on a Saturday morning.
When the ants are ready, their bodies turn dark-brown to black and become shiny. The back end is dry rather than moist as it is when they are alive. They’re laid out to cool.
Then it’s time to tuck in. Don’t worry, they’re tasty. The first time I tried one, I was very, very hesitant. But this time, I knew what to expect. Fresh, they’re especially delicious.
Note: Don’t ask me why, but I’ve been warned that drinking water within two hours or so of eating the ants will give you a stomachache.