More sustainable than meats or dairy, edible insects are gaining attention as an alternative protein source
ck,” “yuck” or “ptooey” is what most people in the Western world would say after swallowing a bug. That’s because they swallowed it by accident. Talk to some diners, however, and it’s as likely they’d say “delicious,” “crunchy” or “tangy.” To accommodate these diners, chefs who indulge entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—have insects on their menus.
David George Gordon, known as The Bug Chef, is the author of The Compleat Cockroach (Ten Speed Press, 1996), Uncover a Tarantula (Silver Dolphin Books, 2004) and The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, reprint edition, 2013), among others. Citing a United Nations report that listed about 1,900 species of arthropods currently being eaten, Gordon estimates that “nearly 2 billion people worldwide eat bugs, and to most of them, it’s just another food group—like green beans.
“Today, there are more reasons than ever before to explore entomophagy. It’s an environmentally friendly source of protein. Research shows that bug farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is exponentially more water-efficient than farming for beef, chicken or pigs.” Moreover, mail-order bugs are readily available online, and, he adds, some do-it-yourselfers are happily raising their own crops of the little critters.
“The most common insects on our menu are house crickets, wax worms and mealworms.”
“Insects are [a mostly] untapped natural resource, with the potential to change our agricultural systems to be more safe, sustainable and equitable,” says Robert Nathan Allen, chairman of the board of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA), a nonprofit educational association of insect farmers, researchers, entrepreneurs and product manufacturers seeking to “encourage positive use of insects.”
With a national membership of 24 firms, NACIA is still in its early stages, but hopes to grow swiftly following this year’s Eating Insects conference held August 13-15 at the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education & Hotel, Athens, Georgia. At an Eating Insects conference held in Detroit in 2016, edible insects were lauded for being resource-efficient in terms of water, feed and space. Only one drawback was acknowledged—eating insects may trigger shellfish allergies.
Snack on a bug
Bug Appétit at New Orleans’ Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium is not a restaurant, but it does serve food, and insect edibles are the main attraction. Entomologist Zack Lemann, curator of animal collections, presides over an educational program that includes preparation of sample snacks that feature one or more bugs. “We usually present an array of seven different varieties each day,” he says. “The most common insects on our menu are house crickets, wax worms and mealworms.”
Noting that the Bug Appétit concept has been flourishing for 21 years, Lemann says, “We have a nature center here, and they were doing this since the 1990s. When the insectarium came on line in 2008, they bequeathed the idea to us and we’ve maintained it over the past decade. Currently, we serve about 200,000 insects to visitors each year at a cost to us of about $150-$200 per week.”
Lemann acknowledges that some guests are hesitant about biting into a bug. “We try to instill a sense of adventure and fun, and that gets many to accept the challenge. We always have at least one dish where the bug is sort of hidden—ground-up or powdered—but we also have another where the consumer must contend with a recognizable insect. Popular dishes include chocolate chirp cookies with crickets baked into the dough, six-legged salsa with mealworms and cinnamon bug crunch with wax worms.”
BUGSfeed.com, focused on entomophagy, offers a Bug of the Week feature that has reported on such delicacies as stingless bees, black soldier flies, June beetles, escamoles (ant larva), mopane caterpillars, cockroaches, locusts, wasps, termites, crickets, giant water bugs and red wood ants.
In a 2016 posting, BUGSfeed researcher/outreach coordinator Jonas Bruun referenced a Fast Company article that placed the American edible insect industry at $20 million and growing. He also cited a blog post by Invenire, Finland, identifying the following reasons for increased attention to this sector:
Currently, we serve about 200,000 insects to visitors each year at a cost to us of about $150-$200 per week.”
Market demand for high-quality protein is becoming more popular through a larger swath of the population, not just athletes and bodybuilders.
Insect protein can be presented in powdered form, so squeamish consumers don’t have to face the insect before eating it.
Insect protein can make processed food seem less “bad,” in effect, elevating it from being unnatural and unhealthy.
Insect protein offers benefits in both cost and sustainability, particularly when compared to protein obtained from livestock.
The sustainability argument, in particular, may contribute to customer loyalty; when people believe they are doing a good deed by buying a certain product, they are inclined to keep buying it.
Some of these rationales appear more applicable to retail environments than to restaurants, perhaps, but they carry weight nonetheless. Chefs, however, must always keep in mind that none of these reasons for insect consumption will work unless they are connected to delicious taste and attractive presentation.
Return of the grasshoppers
In Oaxaca, Mexico, it’s not unusual to see someone eating grasshoppers, known locally as “chapulines.” It’s a lot less common in Austin, Texas, but Rick Lopez, executive chef at La Condesa, is eager to change that dynamic. Located in The Flour House, a landmark Austin building that dates to the 1860s, the restaurant initially offered chapulines as a guacamole topping for dinner selections.
When it didn’t go over, Lopez pulled it from the menu. “But I wasn’t giving up,” he says. “I wanted to repurpose the use of chapulines with a fun approach. We brought it back as a make-your-own-taco secret menu item. It started with a few locals enjoying it, and they spread the word. The idea of being in on the secret has been a successful model for us. We use chapulines because of their year-round availability and the familiarity with the culture and cuisine of Mexico.
“Guests have always responded positively, whether they’re giggling and trying the taco with friends or really digging in and asking for extra tortillas. The fact that it’s off the menu makes the dish feel a little more playful and relaxes guests’ perception. They also know that they ordered it and nobody pushed it on them as a dare, so they know what they’re getting into. I guess if you have chapulines for dinner and meet your buddies for a beer after they ate barbecue, then the whole eating bugs thing may be the talk of the evening.”
Lopez adds, “We also have a delicious salsa de chapulines for a fried steak and eggs dish. It’s packed with protein, with tangy chapulines and spicy chile de árbol.”
The chapulines served at La Condesa are mere fun for some and a serious connection moment for others, Lopez says. “I love when guests come in from Mexico. They feel homesick, and maybe we can help fill that void with a meal. I also love when newbies order the grasshoppers and end up saying, ‘Not bad.’ I don’t take it as a backhanded compliment, but as a positive step in helping others understand Mexican cuisine and culture.”
Eden East in Austin, known for farm-to-table al fresco dining, is both a restaurant and an event space. DJs are on hand each Thursday evening, and a movie night with five-course fine dining is featured on Friday and Saturday. The menu, prepared under the guidance of chef de cuisine Emma Sanchez, leans toward local Central Texas food.
“We started experimenting with insects a couple of years ago to introduce our staff and guests to new culinary experiences,” says Sonya Coté, chef/owner. “We use Merci Mercado sal de gusano—a gourmet edible worm salt—and chapulines. These bug dishes appear on the menu on a rotating basis. Other insects we have been using are mealworms and bee larvae. Having these offerings definitely sets us apart from competitors and enables us to engage guests in conversations about food and farmers.”
Two popular dishes are pecan-smoked tri-tip with coal-roasted pineapple, burnt-onion oil, chapulines and ruby streak mustard, and a vegetable carpaccio that contains beets, basil, carrot, squash and fried mealworms. Other dishes are chapulines and hempseed mole negro, cricket flour polenta, mealworm and summer vegetable fritters, and blueberry-and-cricket dark chocolate bark.
“The insects are served both ground and whole, the latter showing up in fritters, on salads or enrobed in chocolate,” Coté says.
Tastes that linger
Founded by Justin Cucci in 2011, Denver’s Linger exhibits a focus on global street foods. “Insects are central to many street food cultures around the world. It works for Linger’s menu approach, and falls in line with our commitment to sourcing and exploring sustainable proteins,” says Jeremy Kittelson, culinary director. “We mostly work with crickets, black ants and grasshoppers, obtaining them from Wendy Lu McGill at Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch [Denver].”
In the beginning, Kittelson admits, insects on the menu were a novelty. “Now, it’s much more than that. No longer is it just about the fear factor. People are genuinely excited to try the bugs. I don’t know that anyone else in Denver is investing time into creating dishes with edible insects.
“Our sweet-and-sour crickets are really popular. They’re prepared with fried crickets, black ant rice, chapulines, tofu, Chinese sausage, charred broccoli, long beans and black sesame in a sweet-and-sour sauce.”
Oing big on small
Following graduation from The Culinary Institute of America, Charlie Schaffer worked closely with Alain Ducasse, Pedro Subijana and Lidia Bastianich before serving as executive chef for the Patina Restaurant Group. Since 2009, he’s been partnering with his wife Kathleen at Schaffer in Los Angeles, a party/event catering business that likes to give clients a taste of the future.
“We’re fascinated with offering our customers and fans dishes that are cutting-edge, and, clearly, insect protein is the newest frontier,” says Schaffer. “Our company is constantly on the forefront of the next big thing. We are fans of crickets, especially in the form of cricket powder, which can be easily introduced into a myriad of recipes. In addition, we also create dishes featuring grasshoppers and ants.”
Noting that edible insects are easy to buy online, Schaffer says, “One of our favorite sources is Exoterra [Sheridan, Wyoming]. In addition, specialty food stores such as Whole Foods actually sell cricket powder as well as cricket chips, cricket bars and so on.”
Nevertheless, the world of mini-invertebrates is far from a regular item on most shopping lists. To many Westerners, he admits, the idea of eating insects still has shock value. To ease diners to the point of no hesitation, “we have to educate them.
We explain that we purchase insects that are farmed in clean facilities the same way animals are raised. We tell them about the advantages of insect protein, and point out that insects integrated into hummus, for example, impart a tasty, nutty flavor.”
Schaffer rates mezze—a hempseed and cricket hummus paired with toasted spiced flatbread or crudité—as his customers’ favorite insect dish. The dish also features hummus with pickled persimmons, Santa Barbara pistachios and brown butter.
“Smoothies go down really easily,” he adds. “We just add a spoonful of cricket powder for an added level of protein, making it a great postworkout recovery beverage.”
What about an insect dessert?
Schaffer says his chefs are currently working on a salted caramel gelato with cricket protein that they hope to have ready soon. And, he adds,
“We recently executed a recipe for a chocolate torte with ground-up ants on top. The ants, which were surprisingly well-received by the guests, added a citrusy flavor and crunchy touch—a combination of texture and taste.”