“The Wilbur D. May Museum is hosting an event where an anthropologist is serving insects eaten in Southeast Asia. … Wanna do something unusual for Food Finds?” So said the email from my editor, and far be it from me to not take up the challenge. My wife politely declined to join in on the bug eatin’, but my elder son eagerly agreed to tag along. He’s kind of odd that way. Seating for the “Bug Buffet” was sold out ($25 for the lecture and tasting) with ages ranging from young kids to retirees.
Consumption of insects as a sustainable source of nutrition (entomophagy) has begun to creep into the consciousness of Western cultures. Indeed, 80 percent of world cultures include any of 2,000 edible insect species in their diet.
University of Nevada, Reno cultural anthropologist Dr. Michelle Roberts was our guide to the world of edible insects. During her travels to Southeast Asia and Africa, she has encountered an amazing variety of insect-based foods with a range of culinary sophistication.
We were warned insects may pose a risk to people with shellfish allergies, not a surprise since crustaceans and mollusks are just bugs with a better reputation. So many cultures include arthropods as part of their staple diets, there must be something more than protein, minerals and amino acids to gain. Humans don’t just eat to live, they love to eat things that taste good.
Our menu included crickets, bamboo worm pupae, black ant eggs, silkworm and grasshopper kebabs, chocolate-covered superworms, white chocolate ant wafers, and "grain moth larvae poop tea." The lecture generated visions of stir-fried mealworms, lake fly burgers, and ant eggs prepared like lentils with mint and cilantro. What we were served were completely desiccated creatures with very little flavor to speak of. So much for bracing myself to down ooey, gooey cooties.
The small crickets and silkworms were slightly nutty with texture akin to snack foods found in a supermarket. If seasoned akin to the crackers and chips Americans love—though with much higher nutritional value—I’d definitely be tempted to buy a bag. The bamboo worms were about an inch long, reminiscent of plain puffed rice in both flavor and texture. The black ant eggs were served on butter crackers, with or without cream cheese. They looked like spent coffee grounds sprinkled on top, but all I tasted was cheese and cracker. Similarly, the only thing I could taste in the chocolate-covered items was … chocolate. It’s apparently true that anything can be made edible if coated in cocoa.
The only items that gave me pause were the dried grasshopper and “grain moth poop tea.” At first, I thought the beverage tasted and smelled faintly of wood—until my son noted I was probably tasting the paper cup. On further sips I had to agree: The tea tasted like hot water and really nothing else. Why bother? More worrisome was staring down the big black eyes of a really large grasshopper. I braced myself to crunch it down and, yes, it took quite a while to chew it all up. I didn’t want to risk getting a leg or other extremity stuck in my teeth, but my concern was unfounded. Ultimately, the flavor and texture were that of dried leaves, as if I’d scooped up a bunch of autumn for a snack. Not revolting, but certainly nothing I want to do again.
I enjoyed the lecture far more than the “buffet,” especially the stats on how feeding livestock bug meal instead of corn/grain/bonemeal dramatically improves the meat’s nutrition while reducing water usage and the other costs of growing feed. You don’t have to directly eat the bugs to gain benefit from them. However, with visions of gustatory gusto in my head, I guess I’ll have to travel elsewhere if I’m going to taste some really well-prepared bugs.