There are at least dozens of reasons why insect-eating (a culinary tradition known formally as entomophagy) is slowly becoming mainstream in the West like sushi did a few decades ago. Many insects are more sustainable, more nutritious, and even more bio-available nutritionally to humans than beef or chicken. We are depleting the seas of fish, and it’s estimated that the vast majority of the population will not be able to afford seafood or beef by 2050 because of over-fishing, and the environmental problems tied to how we source these foods, as well as the pressures of over-population. Many vegan imitations of meat are starting to fill the niche that beef filled for our generation, and maybe someday soon in a couple of generations people will be appalled at the savagery of the daily torture and holocaust of animals that we today consider a normal way of producing food.
With me being a foodie and all, after watching many videos on insect-eating, and documentaries like this one, it was inevitable that I was going to have insect-eating adventures. I got my insect-eating cherry popped at an AMAZING Mexican restaurant on the north side of Chicago that serves chapulines. The restaurant is known as Kie-Gol-Lanee, which must be an Aztec or other indigenous term, and it’s possibly the BEST Mexican restaurant in the city both in terms of flavor and quality of ingredients, and service. The chapulines are tiny grasshoppers that appear to be marinated in lime and chili, and taste like a crunchy version of what they’re marinated in. I had them in salads and on deviled eggs.
I hear meal worms are popular (particular in meatballs, where their appearance can easily be masked) and that some ant species taste lemony. But crickets, in particular, are gaining popularity at a pace that surprises me. This is because they contain about 60 % protein, plus many vitamins and minerals, Omega 3s, and fiber so that there are studies that link them to better gut health. A surprisingly huge proportion of the world eats them, and many other insects. According to this National Geographic essay:
The ancient Romans and Greeks dined on insects. Pliny, the first-century Roman scholar and author of Historia Naturalis, wrote that Roman aristocrats loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine.
Aristotle described in his writings the ideal time to harvest cicadas: “The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken. At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs.”
Which begs the question: Did Epicurus and his associates eat bugs? Either way, Pumbaa did in the Lion King. What’s good enough for Pumbaa is good enough for me.
If even the West has a history with entomophagy, why not give it a try? I was adventurous enough to go to an Asian store in my neighborhood and buy frozen crickets to use in my kitchen. I was encouraged by my neighbor and partner-in-crime Brian. I had no idea what to do with them, and the ones I got at the Asian store were much bigger than the tiny and un-intimidating chapulines I had eaten at the Mexican restaurant with my other neighbor. Like three times as big, at least. I admit I was a bit more squeamish this time, but yet I’ve seen lobster much bigger than that and, if you REALLY look at it, a lobster is just a giant bug that happens to live in the ocean. Crabs, spiders, lobsters, roaches: all cousins! (Don’t believe me? Look it up!)
Our initial culinary effort was blah: my neighbor roasted four or five into a stir-fry. They were visually very interesting on the plate. We each ate one. The other ones went to waste. They didn’t taste bad, but we needed to learn to work with the ingredient and we had no idea what to do with them. We hadn’t seasoned them enough, but the visual exposure to crickets on our plates made the experience fun and different.
I had many more frozen crickets and was determined to learn how to use the ingredient: I saw that many people in Thailand would deep fry them for five minutes and claimed they tasted like pop-corn, so I made a salty treat of them after deep-frying a few for five minutes in very hot oil. I’m not used to eating food so oily, but I have to admit the aroma of the crickets was very appetizing and they did taste a bit like pop corn. I did not have the spices used in Thailand to add fragrance to them, but I had sofrito and ají–Latin American spices. I enjoyed this dish, but it’s not something I would make frequently, and deep-frying is not a practice I engage in frequently in my kitchen. Too much oil. I would try other ways.
By this time, I had heard about cricket flour and seen videos where it was used to make bread, and it occurred to me that this would be a much safer way to turn breads into a complete protein and to remove the appearance of insect from the ingredient. I say “cricket flour” but it’s fair to call it cricket protein powder (it’s sold as such on amazon) because it’s nutritionally dense and, in breads, one may replace about a fourth of the regular flour with it. It doesn’t work like a flour, but more like a protein powder. I’ve found that this is the BEST way to use crickets in the kitchen. I first made my own cricket powder by putting the remaining crickets in the blender with water, and adding the cricket ground meat to grated cassava. Cassava (or yuca) is a tuber (like yams and potatoes). It’s starchy and makes a yummy bread that can be made garlicky. I’ve written blogs about it before.
Cassava cricket bread is, thus far and BY FAR, the tastiest (and healthiest) dish I’ve created with crickets. The aroma, the flavor, were all on point. The mixture is simply mixed with garlic powder and salt (and any other spices we wish to add) and roasted on a skillet for about three minutes on each side with butter or olive oil.
The next best dish I’ve created (and the most recent one) is cricket banana bread. Just adapt any banana bread recipe you find online and add about one part cricket flour to four parts or so regular flour. I didn’t use nuts because I didn’t have them, but I remember adding coconut flour and oil, a little sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. Oh, and I used einkorn flour, which is an ancient variety of wheat. Can you tell there are insects in this delicious banana cake from looking at it? It tasted like any other banana bread, except that each loaf had a good amount of protein and fiber. So I ate with no guilt. I like to use very little sugar (since ripe bananas are naturally sweet) so it was not too sweet. As far as I’m concerned, this is a healthier version of your typical banana bread.
I will continue experimenting with this new (for me) ingredient. I encourage you to learn about and consider the benefits of entomophagy not just for the environment and for the planet, but for the PLEASURE of learning how to use an ingredient that is nutritionally dense as well as healthy and (if used properly) tasty.