Here at the Necro Nom-nom-nomicon, we are all about being adventurous in our recipes, and that includes the use of real insects in some of our more disgustingly delicious dishes.
While some of you have been enthusiastic about giving new things a try, a few of you have been a little, ahem, reluctant when it comes to working our insect ingredients into the menu. Which is why we’re going to take a few minutes today and talk about bugs and Entomophagy.
Let’s start with the big scary word first…Entomophagy.
Basically, in a nutshell (or bug shell, if you will) it’s the practice of eating insects. Or, more specifically, the willful, intentional act of eating insects.
Why do I say willful and intentional? Because, whether or not you like it, you’re already eating bugs every day.
Bugs are everywhere…including your food. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous, the FDA has actually included specific information in their handbooks for just how much “bug” can legally be in your food before a manufacturer has to tell you.
Feel like some spaghetti and want to throw in some canned mushrooms? Better be prepared for some maggots to join the party…around 20 in fact. That’s right, the FDA mandates that up to 20 maggots are allowed for every 100 grams of drained mushroom.
Why not wash that spaghetti down with some fruit juice? Of course, for every 8-ounce cup of sweet pressed apple cider, you’re also getting about 5 fruit flies.
Want to switch to something a little less ‘juicy?’ That handful of raisins is legally allowed up to 35 fruit fly eggs for each 8-ounce box you slam. Yum.
But what about alcohol? Alcohol kills bugs, right?
You bet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still make it into the can. For every 10 grams of hops processed into your favorite malty, alcoholic beverage (beer) the FDA legally allows 2,500 aphids to be included in that mix.
Feeling queasy yet?
Now that I’ve gone and fully ruined your appetite, let’s talk about why this actually isn’t such a bad thing…and why bugs really should be on the menu.
First off, insects are good for you.
They’re high in protein, cramming in a whopping 7 grams per ¼ cup. Insects are packed full of healthy things like fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. They’re gluten-free, which is great news for anyone with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, and are rich in amino acids. Eating insects can add vitamins to your diet, like riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and in some cases folic acid. They’re also an excellent source of trace minerals including copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
On top of that, pound for pound, they’re more environmentally friendly to produce than just about any other food source on the planet.
In fact, even the United Nations supports eating bugs! In a massive, 201-page report from 2013 entitled Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security, the UN not only encouraged the consumption of edible insects, but also outlined how to gather insects for both food and income, as well as which insects one should look for when considering adding them to your diet.
But why insects?
Much like insects, Humans are an incredibly prolific species. It’s estimated that by the time 2050 rolls around, there will be 9 billion people on this planet. We’re already having a hard time feeding the current population of roughly 7.5 billion, and adding another additional 1.5 billion will strain our already overtaxed resources.
Hunger is a problem facing 1 billion people worldwide. With the scarcity of land, the overfishing (and pollution) of our oceans, the changes in our climate and issues of water shortages around the globe, finding a way to feed all those mouths with a sustainable source of protein is a problem that needs to be solved.
So why not bugs?
The collection of insects in the wild and large-scale farming costs less money, has a smaller carbon footprint, and results in less waste (including greenhouse gasses) than most livestock. Insects are also far superior when it comes to converting feed into protein. Pound for pound, cattle require 12 times more feed to rear than crickets; sheep require four times more feed and pigs and chicken take twice as much.
For many of us in the United States, insects are something we regard with annoyance and disgust. We avoid them when we can, and when we can’t, we exterminate them. While a few brave souls are venturing into the realm of edible insects, we regard these individuals and companies as ‘novelties.’ Eating insects has yet to become mainstream in America.
That isn’t the case for the rest of the world. In many cultures around the world bugs are already a part of the daily diet and in some places, are a gourmet treat.
Witchetty grubs are a part of basic “bush tucker” in Australia.
Escamoles, or ant larvae, is a dish native to Central Mexico. So prized for their flavor, they’re called the caviar of the insect world.
And how could we possibly forget the French and their white wine and butter soaked Escargot? Mmm!
But don’t think those are the only insects that get consumed. Beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects, true bugs, termites, dragonflies, and flies are the most commonly eaten insect groups.
All in all, over 80% of humans on this planet don’t eat bugs just to survive…they enjoy it! Every single day, over 2 billion people in 113 countries eat insects as a regular part of their diets and more than 2,000 species of insects are edible.
Really, when you think about it, the United States has some serious catching up to do in the eating insects game (FDA food allowances for insects aside). A lot of this reluctance comes from our culture. Here, eating insects is seen not as a part of a daily routine, but as stated earlier, a novelty, or in some cases, as entertainment. Rather than embrace the edible insect as a viable source of protein, we turn eating insects into cheesy celebrity challenges and shock value reality shows.
Granted, those snails would probably taste a whole lot better with garlic and parsley…
Insects are also safer for us to consume than other sources of protein. Unlike meat, fish, and poultry which can be a carrier for diseases (like the H1N1 virus, salmonella, listeria, and the always terrifying mad cow disease), insects are a safe and easy alternative.
Insects can be roasted, fried, sauteed, baked, ground, glazed, battered, and breaded, just to name a few. There are more ways to cook and serve insects than not!
But first, a very serious word of Warning:
If you are allergic to shrimp, or any type of shellfish, you will also be allergic to almost all hard-shelled and segmented insects. Why? Both insects and shellfish are classified as ‘arthropods’ because they have an exoskeleton and segmented bodies. Any insect that has an outer shell is a part of this classification and should be treated as a potential allergen that you should NOT eat.
Shellfish allergies are generally triggered by chitin, a substance which is also found in genetically similar insects including crickets, spiders, scorpions, millipedes, centipedes, cockroaches and mealworms, just to name a few.
The same warning goes for individuals with allergies to bees and wasps. If you’re allergic to being stung by a particular insect, common sense says you shouldn’t eat it either.
As much as I’d love the company in Hell, you dying of anaphylactic shock before your time as a result of any of my recipes is just going to mean three things:
- You’re dead.
- The Incoming Soul Processing team will have to do an Unexpected Arrival paperwork package on you, which I know they really really hate.
- You’re dead. Did I already say that one?
All this talk about the benefits of eating bugs is, however, academic at this point. While insect consumption looks amazing on paper, it’s a different thing altogether when they’re actually on your plate.
Let me start by saying, it’s easy to get bad bugs in the United States. Really, really easy. One horrible experience with a can of greasy, disgusting insects is a quick way to make ever trying them again a real challenge.
That’s why I make sure that I source my insects from reputable suppliers only…and that can be tough.
The first time I ate insects was while I was in the Navy on leave in Thailand. I had a bag of fresh wok fried grasshoppers and grubs sprinkled with seasoned salt. They were hot, crispy, and delicious. Of course, I’d had a few (or more) Piña coladas (don’t judge…they were amazing), so that might have helped, but regardless, my first taste was positive.
Coming back to the United States, I wanted to replicate that first experience. Online research led me to a number of posts from brave souls who had given canned and processed insects a try. Almost every post summed up the taste in the same way:
Undaunted, but certainly warned, I decided I’d give it a try. I learned through their mistakes that the canned bugs were pretty much universally gross and that I’d have better luck with frozen.
(Side note: canned escargot is the rare exception to this rule. For some reason, snails survive canning really, really well. Who knew?! In fact, I use canned snails in my Snips and Snails recipe and they were fabulously tasty!)
After a little digging, I was able to find a local Asian grocer who sold both frozen black crickets and frozen silkworm pupae and purchased a few packs of each to try out.
The silkworms were the first I tried, and I’ll be honest when I say they took a little work to make palatable. Frozen insects are always a bit of a gamble, and just like any food, fresh is always the best. If you do decide to go the frozen route, I can’t recommend strongly enough making sure to choose a recipe that allows you to fry your bugs. Freezing and then thawing insects takes some of the snap out of their shells, resulting in mushy blobs of…goo. Frying helps to put some of that snap back into them.
I also strongly suggest choosing a dish with lots of spice and flavor. A frozen and then thawed bug is much stronger tasting than a fresh or freeze-dried bug and it’s easy for that flavor to overwhelm a more delicate dish. That’s why I prefer my silkworms in recipes like my Cajun Spiced Silkworms and Pasta and my Garlic Fungus caps.
Frozen crickets were next on my list to try. From past experience, I have found that crickets have a milder taste than the silkworms. Both respond equally well to frying and are interchangeable in the two recipes I’ve listed above.
Now, if you really want versatile bugs with a mild flavor that work in a variety of dishes, I have to say my go-to is the freeze-dried kind.
There are a number of suppliers online where one can find freeze-dried bugs, but my absolute favorite so far for both selection and quality is the Thailand Unique Company.
Before we go any further, let me get something out of the way. At this time I am in no way associated with Thailand Unique nor do I receive any sort of financial compensation for what I’m saying here.* I do have posts that are affiliate/associate related and you are free to read my full disclosure here.
Let’s get back to freeze-dried edible bugs.
When it comes to incorporating insects into food, freeze-dried bugs are the way to go. Freeze-drying maintains the physical integrity of the bugs, an aspect that is totally lost in canning and partially lost in freezing. It also ensures that the bugs remain ‘light’ in flavor, which makes adding them to dishes much easier. In fact, freeze-dried crickets make AMAZING cricket crunch brittle and who hasn’t seen those novelty boxes of chocolate dipped mealworms?
Hell, I even got some for Christmas…and they were delicious!
While I will be honest and say I have not yet tried the canned insects from Thailand Unique, I have ordered and eaten their freeze-dried crickets multiple times and have always been pleased with them. The crickets I use in my cricket crunch brittle are from them and the results were fantastic.
Shh…don’t tell my friends but I gave a few of them cricket crunch brittle in last year’s Christmas cookie exchange! So far…no complaints!
Ordering from Thailand Unique is easy, but be prepared for a bit of a wait as they really are in Thailand and anything they ship you will have to go through customs. It took almost exactly a month to get my order.
Shipping time aside, their prices are reasonable and the bugs I have ordered so far have all arrived in great condition and exceeded my expectations for taste and quality.
There are several other suppliers for edible bugs much closer to home including Hotlix. (Again, not associated with them nor sponsored…*)
Whereas Thailand Unique primarily sells bulk ‘naked’ (read: unseasoned) insects, Hotlix is focused more on pre-packaged and pre-flavored snack insects including their line of CRICK-ETTES® Snax.
If you are looking for an easy way to gently ‘break into’ eating insects, I would suggest starting with those.
Proof positive I practice what I preach. This is a photo of me with my niece. I ate the whole box of crickets and she supervised. Personally, I’m partial to the sour cream and onion version with the salt and vinegar flavor coming in a close second. I have not tried the bacon and cheese flavor…yet.
And of course, like I said before, the chocolate covered insects are damn good (chocolate makes everything taste better!).
There are other suppliers you can turn to and a quick search online for edible bugs will bring up a large number of options. With those, I can only say: read the reviews and make your decision based on what others who have gone before you have to say. Look for sellers who have large numbers of positive reviews and then actually read the reviews yourself. Then read the negative reviews as well and see what people didn’t like about the products.
Early on in my blog, I had the misfortune of ordering two very expensive bags of cricket flour from an online supplier that turned out to be downright revolting. While the vendor had a large number of positive reviews (which I read), they also had a number of negative reviews (which in my early ignorance I ignored.) The flour came, I opened the bag, and just about threw up.
The stench alone was enough to make me doubt the honesty of most of those positive reviews…but I was stubborn and pressed on.
I made a batch of Black Like My Soul Bread, substituting the cricket flour for regular flour.
The brown stuff is the cricket flour.
Huge mistake. It smelled so bad we had to bake with the windows open. The finished product was visually beautiful but the taste was enough to make us all gag.
So pretty…too bad it tasted like Jiminy Cricket’s butt…and that’s me censoring what I really thought it tasted like.
One of my dogs (the least finicky of the three) wouldn’t even eat a slice…and she eats poop…
The entire loaf went into the trash and I went back online to see where I’d gone wrong.
Personally, I think throwing it in the trash was too good for this monstrosity. I shudder to think of the poor raccoon that probably stumbled across this toxic mess in the dump. In hindsight, I probably should have burned it.
This time I read the negative reviews and there I saw people complaining about the same things I was struggling with; strong odor, horrible flavor…
It was at that moment that I realized that the majority of the seller’s positive reviews were fake (What?! Fake reviews?!? I’m shocked!) and the real reviews were all down in the negative section.
Lesson learned I promised to never again buy from a supplier without first doing as much research as possible.
Speaking of lessons, another good one to learn is: high price doesn’t always mean high quality. That loaf of absolutely apocalyptic cricket bread was the single most expensive loaf of bread I have ever made/thrown out. Each bag of the flour was $15 and held only two cups of flour…and the recipe called for 4. Ouch!
Heed my advice…do your research!
In hindsight, I also feel that starting out with a straight all-cricket flour substitution was not the best idea. There are lots of ‘blend’ flours out there that allow you to ease your way into cooking with cricket, including blends that are made up of cassava and coconut flours, tapioca starches and xanthan gums. You can also opt for crickets farmed right here in the United States (no, really!) or Canada as well as crickets raised on organic, GMO-free diets.
Eating bugs can be a great way to work a new protein into your diet and also an exciting way to bring something truly unique to the table…literally. So, the next time you’re looking for a crunchy snack and feel like trying something new, why not reach for edible bugs?
Here, again, for your culinary pleasure, is a list of every successful recipe I’ve made using insects (don’t worry, I’m not including the bread on here…I’m still working that one out!)
*If at any time Thailand Unique Company or Hotlix would like to sponsor me or a post, I would, of course, be incredibly honored and flattered. Hint, hint.
Like what you see? Want to see more? Help me keep making my disgusting creations by visiting my Patreon page.