Edible Insects: Finger Lickin' Grub
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"Insects do not taste like chicken," said Daniella Martin, a charismatic advocate of eating low, make that really low, on the food chain. Through public lectures, cooking demonstrations and her Girl Meets Bug web site, Martin preaches the gospel of why, in her opinion, more people should munch on mealworms, crunch a cricket or feast on plump bee larvae.
Still, it's a hard sell to convince even intrepid foodies to incorporate edible insects into the culinary rotation. While making this story, Daniella shared with me and the camera crew a dish consisting of fileted strips of Thai waterbug atop cucumber slices. She described this exotic insect's flavor as "this complex kind of a Jolly Rancher soaked in banana peel perfume with a hint of melon and green apple and anchovy."
I can't concur with this florid description of an insect with a face only a mother could love as I missed the opportunity to sample this particular dish. Still, the description offered an opportunity for Daniella to share with me a few of the interesting flavors and textures which recur among the roughly 1700 insects which are thought to be edible. At the time of our filming in late November, Daniella had eaten between 20 to 25 different kinds of edible insects, making her as good of an authority as any I'd encounter within the flavor "galaxy", as she put it, of this unusual cuisine.
"Crickets and things that hop, for instance, grasshoppers – they all have a bit of a nutty flavor," she said, adding that "larvae, for instance, often taste rich and buttery…sort of bacon-y. And then some of the smaller ones taste a little bit like mushrooms."
While making this story, I also had the opportunity to meet Norm Gershenz, the gracious and passionate Executive Director of SaveNature, an NGO dedicated to environmental education and the conservation of diverse habitats around the world, from Namibia to Palau. We filmed with Daniella Martin in his Insect Discovery Lab where the two of them talked about various insects, some of which were edible and some were not, such as the eastern lubber grasshopper. Its bright coloration serves as a warning to would-be predators that it sequesters nasty chemicals, making it an unappetizing meal. Green-colored grasshoppers, on the other hand, are safe to eat, as are mealworms which are the juvenile stage of darkling beetles. The beetles, on the other hand, do not make a tasty morsel.
All my interview subjects were quick to point out that our cultural aversion to the consumption of insects is unusual since 80% of the world's population regularly dines on a smorgasbord of edible bugs. In Mexico, for example, not only were insects eaten among Olmec and Maya civilizations well before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, to this day, many regions abound with their own particular insect specialties.
Monica Martinez, an artist and chef who launched in 2011 the nation's first edible insect food cart, Don Bugito, hails from Mexico and is familiar with some of these regional offerings. In Oaxaca, for example, chapulines, which are roasted grasshoppers seasoned with chile and lime, can readily be found in street markets.
Another delicacy, escamoles, which hails from the central Mexican state of Hidalgo, are the eggs of an ant from the genus Liometopum that burrows into the roots of agave and maguey plants. Also found in Hidalgo is the white agave worm which Monica said is prepared by toasting and pan frying this "very juicy" worm and then serving them in tacos.
Given the taxonomic similarity between gourmet crustaceans such as shrimp and lobsters and their arthropod cousins, the insects, it is interesting that in the West we turn our nose up at and our shoe often stomping down upon insects.
Brian Fisher, Curator of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences, regularly visits Madagascar where the population regularly dines on 15 different varieties of insects, including locusts the size of a hot dog. He shared with me an interesting bit of trivia: a former queen of Madagascar had not one but two chefs specializing in insect cuisine.
"Imagine if Michele Obama had two cooks specialize in insects. Would that change the perspective on insects in our society?", he mused. Maybe, although it would probably take much more than the edible seal of approval from the First Lady to get people to throw a few locusts on the grill at the next fourth of July barbecue.