Lion meat, scorpions, ants, crocodile hamburgers and buffalo tostadas with sauce made from the maguey worm. These are some of the delicacies we encountered on a recent visit to San Juan Ernesto Pugibet Market in Mexico City. It is recognized worldwide for the sale of exotic meat as well as products and spices of Pre-Hispanic origin. No other market in the Americas offers such a variety of goods. Here, products that range from fresh and expensive to truly bizarre, attract locals and tourists as well as the highly acclaimed chefs.
Located in the historic center of Mexico City, it was the second most important market in the capital of the Aztec Empire. When the Spanish arrived, its name was changed to San Juan, which it kept until the end of the nineteenth century when Juan Ernesto Pugibet, owner of tobacco shop El Buen Tono, donated the property for the new San Juan Market. Since its inauguration in 1955 under the name of its French benefactor, it has been the gourmet destination par excellence in Mexico City.
At first sight it appears to be a normal market with colorful fruit and vegetable stands, aromatic condiments and spices, dairy products and cold cuts, and exquisite stands that sell high-end prepared food, including Triana Cafe Gourmet and La Jersey, with its gourmet cheeses and delicious sandwiches.
The experience takes another turn when we come upon the culinary products that make this market legendary. Besides venison, suckling pig, iguana and duck, one can also buy insects that were part of the Pre-Hispanic menu: chicuiles (maguey worms), jumiles (stink bugs), grasshoppers, chicatanas (giant winged ants), and scorpions.
And then, there’s the stars of the show: lion meat, wild boar, ostrich, crocodile, buffalo, and armadillo. Part of the adventure is daring to try them.
“Don’t just take a picture; taste it. You’ll like it!” says Benjamin Rodriguezas he happily hands me a huge scorpion. Despite watching him put the insect into his mouth and chew it, all of my senses prevented me from doing the same thing.
Rodriguez, who owns El Gran Cazador Mexico, has been behind the counter for 50 years, surrounded by all kinds of creatures. He is one of many vendors whose business has been in the family for generations. He assures me that when it comes to exotic meat, “all the animals are from establishments that breed them; none come into Mexico illegally.” Don Benjamin introduces his chef, Enrique Medina, who looks at the scorpion still in my hand and says, “Would you like a crocodile hamburger? Eat the scorpion first.”
It’s said that the meat from exotic animals tastes like chicken.
I confirmed that’s true when I finally tasted the crocodile hamburger. And the scorpion? Fried in oil and spices, it tasted like oil and spices, served over a morsel with crispy texture, similar to a grasshopper.