As someone who will order a dish off of a menu solely because I've never heard of it, when I saw a cocktail with the ingredient "worm salt," I knew that I had to give it a go. The menu was in Spanish, so at first I figured that I had to have translated it incorrectly in my head, because why would anyone make salt with worms in it? However, after a quick google, I found that worm salt is indeed a thing and is surprisingly delicious despite its ingredients.
What Is Worm Salt?
Worm salt, or sal de gusano in Spanish, is exactly what it sounds like. This condiment is made from the larvae that live in agave plants, which are what mezcal and tequila are made from. These larvae are the same worms that you can find floating at the bottom of mezcal bottles.
To make it, you toast the worms and grind them up with sea salt and chili peppers. This strange yet tasty condiment has a spicy, salty and smoky flavor. Each worm salt tastes slightly different depending on the producer's recipe, but it always adds a yummy umami flavor to the drink or snack that contains it.
The most common way that agave worm salt is served is on the edge of a cocktail like a margarita or michelada. Rather than just tajin or chili salt to liven up your cocktail, worm salt brings the drink to a new level of tastiness. It's also a popular accompaniment to a shot of mezcal, served alongside a few orange slices.
The History of Worm Salt
This tasty condiment was a strange new experience for me, but it's been an ingredient in the native pre-Hispanic cuisine of Mexico for hundreds of years. Aztec and Mayan gastronomy included fried grasshoppers (chapulines in Spanish) and winged ants (chicatanas), along with other edible insects like the agave worms.
The Aztecs felt that the mezcal worms held healing properties, giving strength to those who ate them. Because of this and their wonderful flavor, eating them was associated with the elite classes of Aztec culture. However, when the Spaniards came to Mexico, they rejected the practice of eating insects, and the snack was only enjoyed by the Indigenous people of Oaxaca for many years.
Eating the little red worms became popular again in mainstream Oaxacan culture when farmers discovered that the bugs were slowly killing their agave plants. The farmers began to remove them by hand, and since eating insects had long been a part of the culture, it was only natural to try eating them.
Along with being a practical choice, many feel that there's something beautiful about eating the animal that lives in the plant that the liquor comes from. When you have a shot, or copita of mezcal, along with worm salt and oranges, you're interrupting the circle of life that naturally occurs in an agave plant, along with getting to enjoy multiple delicious Oaxacan flavors.
Along with adding spice and smoke to cocktails and mezcal shots, worm salt is used to liven up many different Mexican dishes, like ceviche, salsa, tacos or guacamole. It's primarily a Oaxacan speciality but can occasionally be found in other parts of Mexico.
Where Can Worm Salt Be Found?
Worm salt is easiest to find in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is about 300 miles south of Mexico City. However, it can also be bought online or in specialty shops. The brave of heart can even get crazy and make their own.
Simply drink a bottle of mezcal (responsibly) and save the little worm at the bottom. Dry it out in the microwave in 10-second intervals until it's firm to the touch. Then, chop it finely and add in one teaspoon of seas salt and one teaspoon of chopped dried Mexican chili. Grind it all up and you have your very own worm salt!
Since most people would do anything to avoid chopping up a tiny worm just for a taste of spicy saltiness, the easiest way to get worm salt is online. Once you try rimming a mezcal cocktail with a layer of worm salt, you'll never go back. Plus, who knows, maybe you'll feel some of the strength and healing properties that the Aztecs discovered long ago.