Around this time last year, one of our intrepid staff members took on something that’s on the verge of being a culinary trend: eating bugs. In Beth’s case, this involved incorporating cricket-based flour into a traditional muffin recipe. The results were anything but positive.
Still, that was just one implementation of a single type of bug—we hadn’t really given eating them the traditional Ars “thoroughly reviewed” exploration. So, when an opportunity presented itself to try a much larger assortment of insects (and a couple arachnids) prepared in a variety of ways, I quickly signed up.
Why bugs, why now?
Part of the reason is that it isn’t actually “now.” Cultures all over the world have been incorporating insects into their cuisine for ages. Many of us have only become aware of bug-eating as a result of the development of travel-eating as a television genre, popularized by people like Andrew Zimmerman and the late Anthony Bourdain.
But there’s also a practical reason for the interest in insects. We’ve come to the realization that many of the means we use to put protein in our diets—like cows—are driving unsustainable land-use trends and massive greenhouse-gas emissions. Insects could offer an alternative, potentially more benign approach to a healthy diet (though I’m not aware of any calculations that show that they necessarily will).
Both of these probably factored in to my opportunity to chow down on insects. It came about because the Smithsonian Channel is hosting a show called Bug Bites that’s exactly what it sounds like: its host samples bug-based cuisine. One of its chefs, Joseph Yoon, is based in New York and was on hand to prepare some light fare for those in attendance. (If you’re in New York, Yoon is hosting “Brooklyn Bugs” festival that includes cooking demonstrations.)
Critically, Yoon had a table set up with all his raw ingredients—black ants, silkworm pupae, etc.—available for sampling. This allowed me to compare the pre-preparation insect tastes to that of the final dishes. So how were they?
First, a quick rundown of my dining options. The raw ingredients Yoon worked with included grasshoppers, crickets, meal worms, and silkworm pupae. Mealworms were especially notable to me, because I had a reptile as a kid and these were its meal of choice.
I had several of these on their own, before they had been incorporated into a meal. All of them had a very deep, earthy taste, and I seem to be incapable of recalling anything with a comparable flavor to help me describe it. Overall, I’d rate these as slightly on the unpleasant side of neutral. They were complex and interesting tastes, but there was nothing in that complexity that would have made me want to go back for seconds.
Their role in various dishes was complicated. Meal worms changed the texture of a marinara (Yoon prepared one with and without) in a way similar to how adding meat would have changed it. But, in a well-spiced and tomato-rich marinara, their contribution to its flavor was subtle. Beth had found that cricket flour left a bad taste in her mouth, but Yoon used it for creating cheese puffs where the cheese dominated the taste. Similarly, cricket-flour-based chips tasted almost entirely of the salt and spices on them.
The exception to this was the silkworms, which Yoon used in brownies that had a very distinctive taste—the rich earthiness of the insect mixed with the chocolate. If you had told me that its taste came from some sort of high-end gourmet chocolate, I would have found that believable. But having tried the bugs, there was little doubt about the source. Again, there was nothing in particular wrong with it, but it didn’t appeal to me.
That said, there were some standouts among the insect fare. My personal favorite were black ants, which have a citrus-like tang thanks to the formic acid they make. Yoon had sprinkled these atop shrimp, much the way you might garnish them with a lemon slice, but they could easily substitute in a lot of contexts. They also add a bit of texture to whatever they’re used on, a sort of crunch and pop as you bite down on them. Dried scorpions also provided a crunchy texture and a bit of flavor, but the ones on offer here were also cured in salt, which was their dominant taste. Yoon used them as a garnish for a tiny crab cake, where they worked well.
There was one thing I sampled that I did not get to try pre-preparation: tarantula. (This was somewhat difficult for me, as a childhood friend had them as pets.) Yoon had made tarantula tempura, which was tasty, but it didn’t feature any of the earthy flavor I’d found off-putting about the other critters.
One thing Yoon did let slip was that making a meal focused on tarantulas would be phenomenally expensive. This isn’t surprising, as spiders are solitary animals that don’t grow at high density in captivity (this is something that drives people who want to study spider silk a bit nuts). The same is almost certainly true of the scorpions. In contrast, the things you can get in bulk, like crickets, don’t seem to have an especially appealing taste and mostly work when they’re a subtle addition to a dish with a taste experience focused elsewhere.