By Sarah Sekula
USA Today contributor
The first bug Daniella Martin can remember crunching down on was a chapulin (aka a toasted, chile-spiced grasshopper) in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“It tasted like a burnt potato chip,” she says. “It wasn’t love at first bite, I’ll say that much.”
Fast-forward eight years, and she has downed hornet larva in Japan, launched a bug-cooking show and written Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects.
And she enjoys whipping up hakuna frittata, made with mushroom, egg and moth larvae; spider rolls made of tempura-fried tarantula with cucumber and avocado; and Bee-LTs, made with sautéed bee larvae.
“Bugalicious,” she says.
You could say she’s on the up and up when it comes to bug-based cuisine.
But most Americans are not.
Still, you might be surprised to find that dozens of places around the nation are serving up creepy crawlers, from creative food carts to insect-devoted museums to high-end eateries. There are even festivals focusing on the consumption of insects, known as entomophagy.
In fact, more than 33,000 people attended BugFest in Raleigh, N.C., in September. And when the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans hosted its annual Hoppy Thanksgiving event, more than 1,300 people showed up. (The menu included turkey with cornbread and mealworm stuffing, wax worm cranberry sauce and cricket pumpkin pie.) Even more remarkable is that in a busy week, the insectarium goes through 10,000 bugs.
“The list of restaurants serving insects or arthropods of one sort or another is going up, and has been for the last two years or so,” says Zack Lemann, manager of visitor programs at the insectarium. “Those of us engaged in entomophagy are hoping that this will be like sushi. Forty years ago, you would’ve looked at someone like they were crazy if they suggested opening a restaurant serving raw fish, but now it seems you can’t walk a city block without coming across a sushi place.”
Could insects be next?
For Monica Martinez, owner of Don Bugito, a street cart in San Francisco, it’s a no-brainer. The artist and chef from Mexico City, where people have been feasting on buggy cuisine since the Aztec Empire, became fascinated with sustainable food when she moved to San Francisco.
So she launched the food cart in 2011 to introduce Bay Area folks to unusual dishes such as wax moth larvae taquitos ($8); chocolate-covered salted crickets ($5); and toffee mealworms over vanilla ice cream ($5).
The best part is that much of her “mini livestock” is relatively inexpensive.
“A pound of crickets goes for $31,” she says.
It still has to look yummy
One of the latest bug-dining venues, Le Festin Nu, opened in October in Paris. The trendy bar/bistro serves beetles, silkworms, sango worms and giant water bugs.
“Most people start with small ones, like the grasshopper or silkworms, but most end up eating the 10-centimeter giant water bug,” says chef Elie Daviron, 26.
Even more adventurous gourmands, including Marc Dennis, choose to cook the little buggers at home. The painter and art professor hosts bug-dinner parties at his abode in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Of course, it isn’t for everyone, as Meeru Dhalwala, chef at Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia, can attest. She introduced her naan cricket pizza a few years ago, but it didn’t catch on.
“People just weren’t ready to eat whole crickets,” she says. “With insects, the dishes need to look beautiful and not shocking.”
The roasted and ground cricket paranta with turnip and tomato curry, on the other hand, was a huge success.
When it comes to easing insects into North American diets, there are plenty of benefits.
“Mealworms, wax worms, crickets and super worms are great sources of protein, and they don’t include the bad stuff like cholesterol or saturated fats,” Martinez says. “For 100 grams of dried crickets, you get around 40% to 50% of protein, and in red meat you get only 30% to 40%.”
As for calories, 1 kilogram of grasshoppers has the same number of calories as 10 hotdogs.
Americans catching on
These benefits, and others, led the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to release a report last year suggesting that if more people ate insects, it could help reduce world hunger. Plus, more than 2 million people worldwide already eat them on a regular basis, says Marcel Dicke, a professor of entomophagy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
And that number might be on the rise. Former president Bill Clinton recently handed over $1 million to a start-up group that wants to produce insect flour. California-based Tiny Farms sells home bug farms. And Chapul, the world’s first cricket-based energy bar, is being sold worldwide.
In the meantime, chew on this: You are already eating bugs.
“Any processed food contains some degree of insect ingredients because it is too expensive to remove them altogether,” Dicke says. “Everyone consumes up to 500 grams of insects per year.”
For example, the Food and Drug Administration’s limit for chocolate is 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. Noodles can have up to 225 insect parts per 225 grams. And peanut butter, up to 30 insect parts per 100 grams.
When it comes to eating six-legged creatures on purpose, now that’s another thing.
“I wouldn’t call it a huge market opportunity in the U.S. right now,” says Mike Vidikan of Innovaro, a trend-forecasting company. “But it has potential to break through in bits and pieces.”
Especially during cicada season in Washington, D.C., where Vidikan lives, restaurants have started serving cicada cocktails, cicada tacos and cicada custard.
“Of course, there’s still going to be a big difference between Americans accepting cricket tacos on the menu and accepting maggot burgers,” he says.
“The ball seems to be rolling, especially among younger people,” says David Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. “There are bug-eating clubs at colleges. The real question is why it’s taken folks in the U.S. so long to warm up to the idea.”
After all, he says, scorpions taste like crab and baked wax worms like pistachios.
“Eating bugs makes sense, ecologically and economically,” Martin writes in her book. “They also happen to taste really good.”
All she is saying is: Give bugs a chance. And a place on your dinner plate.
Where to get your grub on:
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, New Orleans
Specialties: chocolate chirp cookies, crispy cajun crickets, mango and apple chutney with waxworms, six-legged salsa, cinnamon bug crunch
423 Canal Street; 800-774-7394
Bistro LQ (Popup restaurant), Los Angeles
Specialties: escamoles (ant larvae) (seasonally), crickets and chapulines (grasshoppers)
Casa Oaxaca, Washington, D.C.
2106 18th St. NW; 202-387-2272
Don Bugito (food cart), San Francisco
Specialties: spicy superworms, chocolate-covered crickets, salted crickets tostadita, wax moth larvae taquitos, toffee mealworms over vanilla ice cream
Gringo, St. Louis
398 N. Euclid; 314-449-.1212
Le Festin Nu, Paris
Specialties: grasshopper, beetles, silk worms, sango worms, giant water bugs
10 Rue de La Fontaine du But
Guelguetza Restaurante, Los Angeles
Specialties: chapulines and ground agave worm chili-salt
3014 W. Olympic Blvd.; 213-427-0608
Toloache, New York
Typhoon, Santa Monica, Calif.
Specialties: Singapore-style scorpions; stir-fried cricket; stir-fried silk worm pupae; Manchurian Chambai ants
3221 Donald Douglas Loop South; 310-390-6565
Shanik Restaurant, Seattle
Specialties: chapulines (starting in spring)
500 Terry Avenue North; 206-486-6884