Ahuautle – Mexican insect caviar and Korea in a culinary war

In 2008, the South Korean authorities announced the launch of gastrodiplomacy – a mission to elevate Korean food traditions to the top shelf of the world’s favourite flavours. Foreign South Korean restaurants have even been instructed to standardise the spelling of Korean food names (e.g. ‘kimchi’ instead of ‘kimchee’ or ‘gimchi’) so that foreigners can remember them more easily. As a result of various activities, the number of Korean establishments abroad increased from 9253 in 2009 to 33 499 in 2017. More than three-quarters of the clientele visiting them were not from South Korea. Restaurant prestige has also increased – this year, New York restaurants with Korean food appear in the Michelin Guide four times more than in 2006, and the average price per meal is US$63 – only a dollar less than in French establishments.

Caviar is not just about sturgeons swimming in the Caspian Sea, but also a culinary tradition in Mexico dating back at least to the Aztec empire. Not far from the country’s capital, in the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco, local farmers continue to collect the local caviar, the eggs of an insect from the water boatmen family (Corixidae). Breeding and collecting the microscopic eggs, known as ahuautle, or ‘water amaranth’ in the Nahua language, is a way of life for the last six collectors currently known to exist. The drying up of the reservoir, the development of the land around it and the declining interest of the younger generation are all threats to the tradition of harvesting the caviar, known for its intense but delicate taste.

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