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article imageFried grasshoppers taken off menu at San Francisco restaurant Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jun 25, 2011 in Food
San Francisco - Fried grasshoppers are no longer on the menu at the request of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. This past April a popular eatery in San Francisco's Mission District called La Oaxaqueña Bakery and Restaurant stopped serving the specialty.
"I am disappointed," said La Oaxaqueña owner, Harry Persaud as he talked to this reporter, "but we want our restaurant to be in good standing with the City." The raves on Yelp have been mostly four and five-star reviews.
The less than stellar reviews mostly express frustration about the delays in service when the little-hole-in-the-wall type of place gets busy. Which is pretty much what this reporter experienced on Friday night. Yet right from the moment a customer walks in the door, it is easy to see this is not what American's usually expect from a Mexican restaurant.
"I founded this restaurant in 2008 with the goal of bringing authentic Oaxacan cuisine to San Francisco," said Persaud. "We specialize in mole sauce dishes, those made with fresh chocolate, banana leaf tamales and yes, grasshoppers!"
"Many of our ingredients come right from Oaxaca, a region in southwestern Mexico," said Persaud.
Oaxaca is known for its diversity of peoples and varying cultures. Best known among the distinctive 16 tribes and groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. "Grasshoppers are a delicacy in Oaxaca," said Persaud. "We used to buy them in the market place there in Oaxaca," he said.
In fact people from various parts of the world eat insects of some type. And for grasshoppers in particular, people in Oaxaca have been consuming them for generations. In fact, the eating of grasshoppers can be traced to ancient times, remember John The Baptist? In the gospel narrative it says he ate locusts and wild honey.
Grasshoppers are related to the locust family. Maybe that is what the fuss is about with the SF Dept. of Health? This reporter contacted the local health department several times. "Locally, a health department can approve the selling of grasshoppers if a restaurant owner can produce certification that it is from an approved
source," said Eileen Sheilds, public information officer for the SF Dept. of Public Health.
"Interstate commerce or international trade (even of grasshoppers) is beyond the purview of a local health department," she said.
"We would require a restaurant to provide documentation on the source, cultivation, and preparation method and review this information for safety," said Rajiv Bhatia, MD Director of Environmental & Occupational Health for the department.
Persaud said that he did not have any documentation for the grasshoppers he had been buying in the open market place in Oaxaca. But he said that he is eager to find a grasshopper farm in the USA. “We are in the process of finding one,” he said.
This reporter wanted more specifics and contacted the Food and Drug Administration to get details. “In general, FDA requires under the law that the food must be clean and wholesome (i.e. free from filth, pathogens, and toxins), must have been produced, packaged, stored and transported under sanitary conditions, and must be properly labeled,” said Siobhan De Lancey, the public information office representative for the FDA. (These rules are listed according to regulations under Sec.403).De Lancey noted that In the case of insects, they must be raised specifically for human food in a good manufacturing facility (GMP). Insects raised for animal feed cannot be diverted to human food. So any farm in the USA that raises grasshoppers must be specifically raising them for human consumption.
They cannot be "wildcrafted" (collected in the wild) and sold as food due to the potential of carrying diseases or pesticides, noted De Lancey.
“The manufacturer also needs to demonstrate the "wholesomeness" of the product,” she said. De Lancey also pointed out, if there is some indication in scientific literature that people who are allergic to shrimp, clams, etc. may also be allergic to insects either as food or as adulterants in foods, that must be presented to the public.
Food manufacturing and distribution has strict guidelines in the US and it seems this is why officials at the SF Dept. of Public Health asked Persaud to stop serving fried grasshoppers on the menu until an approved and FDA certified source can be found.
There are grasshopper farms on the web. As to which ones would be suitable for Persaud’s restaurant and meet current FDA regulation as a human food source? Customers like Ian Trottier and his wife Nayely Duran will have to wait and see what the outcome will be.
Meanwhile customers like Trottier and Duran are content with what is currently on the menu. “We have come here four times and this is our favorite place to have hot chocolate,” said Trottier.
Interestingly, Duran’s parents are originally from a little village in Oaxaca. They moved to Mexico City when Duran was little. Yet, she visited relatives in Oaxaca often. “People there eat grasshoppers (Chapulines) live,” said Duran.
Trottier hopes Persaud will find a local grasshopper farm. He enjoys eating a variety of foods and hopes the health department will be helpful to Persaud in his efforts to find an FDA approved source.
“I have been to Oaxaca and I think the food is better here,” said Trottier. He and Duran enjoyed the ‘Tlayuda.’ “This is a classic Oaxacan dish, sort of like a pizza made with a giant crispy tortilla,” he said.
“The food here is good, said Duran, but not as good as back home (in Oaxaca),” she said. Trottier disagreed, yet both recommend it to friends.
Duran and Trottier were the first in line just after 5 PM on Friday to order dinner. Customers go to the counter order from the menu and take a seat. Food is then served to them at table. When Duran and Trottier finished their meal and walked to the door after 6 PM, the restaurant was over-flowing with customers.
Amanda who works behind the counter was overwhelmed. Yet she smiled and greeted everyone saying, “please be patient we are doing the best we can.” “We just ran out of the enchilada mole with turkey,” she said. This reporter took her advice and ordered the chicken enchilada with mole sauce.
San Francisco resident Tim Vigil made a special trip to the Mission District just to try the one of the mole dishes. His parents were originally from Durango, Colorado and when they moved to San Francisco, they brought many of the customs and recipes with them. “Mole was something my mother and my aunt made frequently. This mole dish here at La Oaxaqueña is very rich, delicious,” said Vigil.
“I have heard of people eating bugs as a delicacy,” said Vigil. “I am not sure I want to try any. “But then if they are covered in chocolate like this mole sauce here, I might consider eating a grasshopper or two,” he said.
La Oaxaqueña is open seven days a week. Major credit cards are accepted. For details visit La Oaxaqueña web site.
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