Insect Cuisine: Good and Good for You?
by David George Gordon
Please pass the cricket canapés.
It's been four years since I wrote The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, with its 33 recipes for ant, centipede, spider, and cricket dishes.
While the book has sold well and earned me guest slots on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, it has, alas, done little to change the eating habits of my fellow Americans.
Even after they've been presented with an assortment of new dishes--Scorpion Scaloppini, Giant Water Bugs on Watercress, and Three Bee Salad, just to name a few--most folks would rather cling to the tried-and-true beef, chicken, or pork.
In other parts of the world, people have been merrily munching on insects, arachnids, and their kin for thousands of years. In South Africa, the local favorite is the mopane worm, a four-inch-long caterpillar stewed in a tangy tomato sauce. In Thailand, it's giant water bugs, steamed and served á la carte. In rural Brazil, the menu might include roasted termites or winged ants. Indonesian diners eagerly queue up for curried dragonfly, a delicacy they've named Sky Prawn.
But here? You won't find cricket stir-fry on the menu of the Olive Garden or Denny's. Nor are fried ant eggs--the equivalent of caviar in Mexico City's finest restaurants--served at Sardi's or Wolfgang Puck's. Hunt high and low, but I'll bet you won't see ppondaegi, lightly seasoned Korean silkworms, among the canned goods at your neighborhood grocery chain.
Yes, it's true. Compared to the rest of the world's cultures, we are bug-deprived...and most of us don't even know what we're missing.
The benefits of bug-eating
Take grasshoppers, for example. Nutritional studies have established that these members of the insect order Orthoptera are more nutritious than so-called conventional meats, with six times the protein of cod or lean ground beef.
Similar studies have shown crickets to be equally healthful. One cup of these half-inch-long delicacies contains 250 calories and only six grams of fat. And women, take note: Crickets are also loaded with calcium. A steady diet of these morsels could slow the onset of osteoporosis.
One hundred grams of silkworm larvae provide 100 percent of the daily requirements for copper, zinc, iron, thiamin, and riboflavin. A single honeybee larva may contain 15 times the recommended daily allowance of vitamins A and D. You can actually overdose on these vitamins by eating too many larval bees.
Need another reason to include insects and other land-dwelling arthropods on our bills of fare? Then consider this: Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is much more Earth-friendly than is our reliance on chicken, pork, and beef.
It's all about what food scientists call Efficiency of Conversion of Ingested Food (ECI) ratings. These measures are derived by comparing the weight that an animal gains after eating a quantity of food.
Chickens, which produce 38 to 40 pounds of meat from 100 pounds of feed, earn an ECI rating of around 38 or 40. By comparison, beef cattle and sheep get ECI values of 10 and 5.3 respectively.
In other words, 90 percent of a steer's diet and 95 percent of a sheep's diet is wasted, at least from a meat-eater's perspective. No wonder we need to devote such vast tracts of land and deep reservoirs of water to these animals' cultivation.
Now let's look at some ECI values for insects: 19 to 31 for silkworm, 16 to 37 for the pale Western cutworm, and up to 44 for German cockroaches.
No, I'm not suggesting that we all need to eat cockroaches in order to save the planet. I'm just trying to point out how metabolically thrifty certain insects are--and how much food and water we could conserve.
Still not convinced? Then think about how many tons of pesticide we could save by hand-harvesting the competition instead of launching a chemical assault on their ranks. For centuries, Japanese farmers have been catching the grasshoppers that might otherwise nibble on their rice plants.
This way, the farmers can rely on two cash crops from their paddies--the fresh, pesticide-free rice and "rice hoppers" in teriyaki sauce, long considered a delicacy in parts of Japan.
Entomophagy, past and present
There's strong evidence that early on, people in Europe and the Middle East routinely ate insects. In the Book of Leviticus, for example, the text states that most bugs are taboo. But not ALL bugs, it says. "These you may eat; the arbeh after his kind, the sal'am after his kind, the chargol after his kind, and the chagav after his kind...." Most scholars agree that these are really names for the same critter, the locust, in various developmental states.
So what made people stop eating locusts? "It's hard to figure," says Dr. Florence Dunkel, an associate professor of entomology at Montana State University. "But regardless of why we turned away, it appears that we are very slowly returning to an acceptance of insects as food."
Dunkel points to the growing popularity of insect fairs and festivals typically hosted by universities, science museums, and zoos. Edible insects are a highlight of many of these public events, which often include free samples of mealworm quiche or chocolate "chirp" cookies--a variant of the old standby featuring oven-baked crickets.
Want to Learn More?
Itching to try insect cuisine at home? Here's a tasty recipe for pasta with grasshoppers.
Still not sold on bugs in general? Martha tell us about three bugs we should love--and why.
The attendance figures for these events are truly staggering, according to Dunkel. As many as 50,000 people attended last year's entomophagy events at the L'Insectarium de Montréal. Around 10,000 insect epicures flock to the annual Big Bug Bake-Off, part of Purdue University's annual Bug Bowl in April. Other events at Iowa State University, New Orleans' Audubon Zoo, and the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History in Raleigh attract equally enthusiastic if somewhat smaller crowds.
At least one company, Hotlix, of Grover Beach, California, has made a modest profit on catering to such events. Its Cricket-Lick-It lollipops have become the coin of the realm, especially among adolescent entomophages.
"There's hardly an entomology student alive today who hasn't sampled some sort of insect-based cuisine," claims Dunkel. "And even before college, more and more young people are experiencing entomophagy in high school or at gatherings of their local 4-H clubs."
Want More David?
Read other columns by David George Gordon.Insect haute cuisine
"Right now, it's the 'in' thing," says Brian Vidor, proprietor of Typhoon, a trendy Pan-Asian restaurant at the Santa Monica, California, airport.
About six years ago, Vidor added stir-fried crickets and ants to his already extensive menu. The word swiftly spread, and soon the restaurateur found himself struggling to ensure that supply would meet the demand.
"I've had to focus on foods that are available year-round or that have a long shelf life," Vidor explains. "Crickets are the easiest," he says, "because they are reared commercially by the millions, mainly as live bait or to feed lizards and other pets." Dried ants can be purchased by the pound from Chinese pharmaceutical suppliers, who value these exotic comestibles for their supposed antiaging properties.
Recently Vidor has added Thai water bugs and scorpions on shrimp toast to his menu. He claims the latter come from special scorpion ranches in China. The former? "From the frozen foods section of a nearby Asian grocery store," he says with a smile.
Right now, Vidor's riding the crest of a wave generated in large part by the media. "We've hosted nearly every wrap party for the cast and crew of TV's Survivor," he boasts.
Weekly TV programs like Fear Factor (in which contestants eat live cockroaches and other insects while competing for cash prizes) have also piqued public interest. So have "celebrity endorsements" by the big green star of Shrek, observed eating ants on a discarded lollipop stick during one scene in Dreamworks' computer-animated film.
Still, Vidor, the culinary Czar of the Bizarre, admits that most people are slow to accept insects, however artfully prepared, as haute cuisine.
"Most diners are not very adventurous," he says. "They favor the foods their parents or grandparents gave them--even if those items seem strange by other folks' standards. The same people who lust for oxtail soup or pickled pigs' feet will turn up their noses at barbecued tarantula or one of my personal favorites, Cream of Katydid Soup."
Look how long it took sushi bars to catch on in this country, even though the Japanese have been eating sushi and sashimi for centuries. Now everybody's clamoring for slices of raw yellowtail tuna or crabmeat dotted with flying fish roe.
"Be bold," advises Florence Dunkel.
To which I add, "Bug appétit."
David George Gordon is an award-winning science writer with a penchant for the bizarre. He is the author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook and The Compleat Cockroach.