At a recent cocktail event hosted by the Centre for Social Innovation in New York, crickets were on display everywhere. Their constant chirps provided a faint soundtrack for the evening and reminded those mingling why they had come: Outside, crickets may be pests; in this room, they were dinner.
“There’s a golden opportunity here,” says organizer Aruna Handa, founder of Toronto-based food company Alimentary Initiatives, who is passionate about the global benefits of eating insects. “We just have to figure out how to convince people to give it a try.”
Eat more bugs. That’s Handa’s mission and the message of a recent United Nations report. The world’s growing population needs protein. But beef, pork and chicken eat up valuable resources. Insects offer protein that can be farmed at a fraction of the price.
“They require less water, they require less space and they require a small amount of food,” says University of Georgia entomologist Marianne Shockley.
The challenge is getting squeamish consumers to eat them -- and entrepreneurs to raise them. On a pedestal in the room, thousands of crickets hopped around inside a clear plastic contraption about the size of a vacuum cleaner -- kind of a steampunk Habitrail. It’s a prototype for a compact cricket farm.
“This piece would farm about 2,500 crickets every eight weeks,” explains creator Jakub Dzamba, the event’s featured speaker. He says a farm this size is an easy, cheap way to provide enough protein for two full meals a week.
Giving a tour of his creation, Dzamba paused to tend to it. A rebel cricket escaped, prompting him to dart in and tape up the breach. “I think I found the leak,” he says.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that two billion people -- mostly in Asia and Africa -- already eat insects regularly. Typically, the bugs are either ground into flour or cooked whole and tossed into a variety of dishes.
But to make an impact on global nutrition and the environment, many more people will have to get over deep reservations about eating insects.
The New York crowd on this night bought tickets to a cricket-eating event, so they’re bolder than most.
“I’ve been told it tastes like popcorn,” says Michelle Catanzaro, laughing uncomfortably while eyeballing a raw cricket on a skewer. “I don’t know. I guess it’s a little off-putting just looking at that one, but I’m down.”
After finally popping it in, she pronounced it “actually quite good.”
I visited the buffet table for a taste of what Cookie Martinez made with the critters. She is normally a baker, which means tonight’s assignments posed some unusual challenges. The crickets she got for the event came frozen, but as they thawed, Martinez realized they were still alive. Chasing her ingredients around the kitchen was a new experience, but she managed.
For tonight’s event, crickets got gourmet treatment, winding up in a spread on crostini, inside sweet almond brittle and in a falafel-like ball on a skewer, which Martinez dubbed a “kribab.” I first tried a cricket on its own, or as Martinez playfully described it, cricket sashimi.
It has the crunch and somewhat unsettling gooey center you might expect. The taste is slightly nutty. That characteristic makes it a nice addition to the almond brittle and works well in the “kribab.” The overall flavor is mild, which means bug chefs can incorporate crickets into a variety of dishes without overpowering them.
But many people have trouble getting past eating something with legs and eyes. Insect-farming supporters point to more subtle ways to blend insects into food. Dried crickets can be ground into flour and made into any number of foods. Chapul is a start-up company using cricket flour to make energy bars targeting a sustainability-conscious crowd. The product has a flavor similar to other energy bars and only a close examination of the packaging reveals them as a cricket product.
Enthusiasts of insect eating remind skeptics that eating raw fish was unthinkable for many people just a couple decades ago. But now sushi is a globally popular dish.
That kind of widespread acceptance doesn’t seem likely, but bug believers—including the U.N.—say if even a few more people eat just the occasional insect, the world will be better fed and better off.
Ready to try cooking with insects in your own kitchen? Longtime bug chef David George Gordon offers these recipes from his latest book, “The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Revised: 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin.” He says he often gets his crickets from Fluker Farms. (Photos by Chugrad McAndrews)
Yield: 6 servings
Orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, gets its name from the Italian word for barley, but we all know that orzo looks exactly like juvenile bugs. Needless to say, it’s a perfect complement for crickets, especially three- or four-week-old nymphs, which are of a comparable size. At this stage in life the young crickets lack wings and ovipositors, the chitinous tubes through which the adult females pass their eggs. Their limbs are skinny, so there’s no need to remove them before cooking. Likewise for the antennae, which, at less than a quarter of an inch, should pose no obstacle to enjoying this meal.
3 cups vegetable broth
1 cup orzo
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup finely diced green bell pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup frozen two- or three-week-old cricket
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Bring the broth to a boil, then stir in the orzo.
2. Continue boiling the orzo until it is tender, about 10 minutes; drain any extra liquid, then quickly add the carrot and red and green peppers. Mix evenly and set aside.
3. In a separate skillet, melt the butter and add the garlic, onion, and crickets. Sauté briefly until the onions are translucent and the garlic and crickets have browned.
4. Combine the cricket mixture, including any liquid, with the orzo and vegetables, top with the parsley, and serve.
Deep-Fried Tarantula Spider
Yield: 4 servings
2 cups canola or vegetable oil
2 frozen adult Texas brown, Chilean rose, or similar-sized tarantulas, thawed
1 cup tempura batter (page 84)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1. In a deep saucepan or deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to 350°F.
2. With a sharp knife, sever and discard the abdomens from the two tarantulas. Singe off any of the spider’s body hairs with a crème brûlée torch or butane cigarette lighter.
3. Dip each spider into the tempura batter to thoroughly coat. Use a slotted spoon or your hands to make sure each spider is spread-eagled (so to speak) and not clumped together before dropping it into the hot oil.
4. Deep-fry the spiders, one at a time, until the batter is lightly browned, about 1 minute. Remove each spider from the oil and place it on paper towels to drain.
5. Use a sharp knife to cut each spider in two lengthwise. Sprinkle with the paprika and serve. Encourage your guests to try the legs first and, if still hungry, to nibble on the meat-filled mesothorax, avoiding the spider’s paired fangs, which are tucked away in the head region.
1 medium egg
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1. To make the batter, beat the egg in a small mixing bowl until smooth. Slowly add the cold water, continuing to beat until evenly mixed. Add the flour and baking soda and beat gently until combined; the batter should be a bit lumpy.
2. Let the batter sit at room temperature while heating the oil.