There’s a bug in my food on purpose?

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By Sarah Sekula, published in USA TODAY

The first bug Daniella Martin can remember crunching down on was a chapuline (aka a toasted, chile-spiced grasshopper) in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“It tasted like a burnt potato chip,” she recalls. “It wasn’t love at first bite, I’ll say that much.”

Fast forward eight years, though, and she’s downed hornet larva in Japan, launched a bug-cooking show and authored Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects (Feb. 11; Amazon Publishing).

In her spare time, 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 the usual ingredients, plus sautéed bee larvae.

“Bugalicious,” she claims.

You could say she’s on the up and up when it comes to bug-based cuisine.

Most Americans, however, are not.

Photo: Don Bugito

That said, 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, also known as entomophagy.

In fact, more than 33,000 people attended BugFest in Raleigh, N.C., in September. And in November when the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans hosted it’s annual Hoppy Thanksgiving event, more than 1,300 people showed. (The menu included turkey with cornbread and mealworm stuffing, wax worm cranberry sauce and cricket pumpkin pie.) What’s even more remarkable is that on a busy week, they go 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 38-year-old artist and chef from Mexico City, where people have been feasting on buggy cuisine since the Aztec Empire, became fascinated with sustainable food systems when she moved to San Francisco.

So she launched the food cart in 2011 to introduce people in the Bay Area to pre-Hispanic fare. Popular menu items include wax moth larvae taquitos ($8); chocolate-covered salted crickets ($5); and toffee mealworms over vanilla ice-cream ($5).

The best part is: many of her supplies are relatively inexpensive. She buys the edible bugs from World Ento, an edible insect supplier. “A pound of crickets go for $31,” she says.

Bugging Out

One of the latest bug-dining locations, Le Festin Nu, opened in October in Paris. The trendy bar/bistro in the 18th arrondissement serves beetles, silk worms, sango worms and giant water bugs.

“Most people start with small ones, like the grasshopper or silk worms, but most of them end up eating the 10-centimeter giant water bug,” says chef Elie Daviron, 26.

For the even more adventurous gourmands, like Marc Dennis, there’s always the option of cooking the little buggers at home. The painter and art professor hosts bug-dinner parties at his Brooklyn abode.

Of course, it isn’t for everyone, as Meeru Dhalwala, chef at Vij’s and Rangoli restaurants, in Vancouver can attest. She introduced her naan cricket pizza a few years ago, and 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.

Protein fix
When it comes to easing insects into North American diets, why not? After all, 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 usually found in red meats,” says Martinez. “For 100 grams of dried crickets you get around 40 to 50 percent of protein, and in red meat you get only 30 to 40 percent.”

As for calories, 1 kilogram of grasshoppers has the same amount of calories as 10 hotdogs.

These benefits, and others, led the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to release a report in May suggesting that if more people ate insects it could help reduce world hunger. Plus, more than 2 million people worldwide already eat insects on a regular basis, according to Marcel Dicke, 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 startup 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 actually already eating bugs.

“Any processed food contains some degree of insect ingredients because it is too expensive to remove them altogether,” Dicke says. “It has been calculated that everyone consumes up to 500 grams of insects per year.”

For example, the FDA 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 Vidikan.

“But it has potential to break through in bits and pieces.” Especially during cicada season in D.C. where he lives. During the summertime, when they come out in swarms, restaurants have started serving cicada cocktails, cicada tacos and cicada custard.

“There’s a sustainability aspect,” Vidikan says. “Entomophagy is a way to lessen the impact on our environment. As the global population increases, we need to produce more food to feed the world.”

“Of course, there’s still going to be a big difference between Americans accepting cricket tacos on the menu and accepting maggot burgers,” says Vidikan.

“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, and I’m always surprised by the large number of people who raise their hands whenever I ask how many have eaten insects before. 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, baked waxworms like pistachios.

This begs the question: Will more entomological treats creep onto dinner plates by, let’s say, 2020? There’s certainly a good chance.

“Eating bugs makes sense, ecologically and economically,” says Martin 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
Chocolate chirp cookies, crispy cajun crickets, mango and apple chutney with waxworms, six-legged salsa, cinnamon bug crunch

423 Canal Street
New Orleans, La.
800-774-7394
www.auduboninstitute.org/visit/insectarium

Casa Oaxaca
Chapulines
2106 18th ST NW
Washington, D.C.
202-387-2272; www.oaxacaindc.com

Don Bugito (food cart)
Spicy superworms, chocolate-covered crickets, salted crickets tostadita, wax moth larvae taquitos, toffee mealworms over vanilla ice-cream
www.donbugito.com

Gringo, St. Louis
Chapulines
398 N. Euclid
St. Louis, MO
314.449.1212; www.gringo-stl.com

Le Festin Nu
Grasshopper, beetles, silk worms, sango worms, giant water bugs
10 Rue de La Fontaine du But
Paris, France
01 42 58 60 64; www.lefestinnu.com

Guelguetza Restaurante
Chapulines and ground agave worm chili-salt
3014 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, Calif.
213-427-0608; www.ilovemole.com

Toloache
Chapulines
Several locations in New York
www.toloachenyc.com

Typhoon
Singapore-style scorpions; stir-fried cricket; stir-fried silk worm pupae; Manchurian Chambai ants
3221 Donald Douglas Loop South
Santa Monica. Calif.
310-390-6565; www.typhoon.biz

Shanik Restaurant
Chapulines (starting in spring 2014)
500 Terry Avenue North
Seattle, Wash.
206-486-6884; shanikrestaurant.com