Cooking With Bugs
by Gino Fanelli | published Nov. 6th, 2015
We live in a culture where certain things are just never meant to go in your mouth. That's not innuendo, that's an encompassing observation on the food culture of the western world, which is interesting in its own right.
In America, cultures have the opportunity to mingle and trickle down components of their local cuisine into Americana. However, regardless of the diverse origins of American cuisine, there is a tendency for it to conform to an American standard. Chinese food is Americanized to focus more on deep frying and saccharine sauces. Italian food is Americanized to focus heavily on cheese, starches and hearty sauces. Sushi is wrapped in bacon and drizzled with Sriracha.
And some foods are just completely off-limits. Horse meat, while popular in some areas of Japan, is seen as abhorrent in American culture. Though whaling is seen as barbaric, Japanese whaling continues to thrive, even with rampantly failing profit margins, and pilot whales continue to be a staple food of the Faroe Islands. And, of course, insects, worms, snakes, arachnids, lizards, amphibians and all other assorted creepy crawlies that may be comfort foods to one culture have failed to diffuse into the melting pot.
In many cases, the cuisines prominently featuring bugs hail from regions where the diet was born out of necessity. While some Central and South American cultures revere certain insects as delicacies, or having medicinal properties, such as the bullet ant in Peru, bugs in Asian diets can often be linked to times of economic and political hardship. In Cambodia, the bloody reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge led to impoverished and oppressed Cambodians becoming a bit more resourceful with their diets. When his regime came to an end, so did the cannibalism that many were forced into. But the taste for deep-fried tarantulas stuck around, now an iconic dish of the town of Skuon. And from Beijing to Bangkok, roasted insects have been made an off-beat substitute for bar peanuts and popcorn.
According to a U.N. report, 2 billion people globally consider some form of insect a delicacy. With things like mealworms providing similar nutritional value to fish while much higher sustainability and smaller ecological footprint, the western world is urged to jump on the boat.
Presented here are two recipes, each a strongly Americanized version of a southeast Asian staple, with the additional crunch of some six-legged friends. Consider them an imagining of what your local Chinese joint would pump out if the bugs went from their floors to their woks.
Mealworm Fried Rice
25 extra large mealworms
Two cups white rice
Two large eggs
One clove of garlic, minced
Half a Vidalia onion, chopped
One hot pepper (I used Hot Cherries, but substitute in your favorite for desired heat), minced
One tbs olive oil
Two tbs soy sauce
A dash of fish sauce
Bring water to a boil in a medium sized pot and cook rice.
While rice is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large wok over medium heat. Add in hot pepper and garlic; fry until garlic is fragrant.
Add in mealworms and onions. Fry until onions begin to caramelize and mealworms begin to brown.
Drain the rice and blend in with vegetables. Carefully divide the mixture onto one half of the pan. Add eggs into the other half of the pan and scramble.
Once eggs are fully cooked, blend into the rice mixture. Finish with the soy and fish sauces and serve immediately.
Optional: Mealworms can be cooked live, or baked for one hour at 350 for additional crunchiness.
Taste: The worms themselves do not have an offensive flavor, but this is mostly due to the fact that they hardly have any flavor. They are more or less completely innocuous, a soft crunch leading into a slight mild, nutty sweetness with an almost starchy texture. Pairs well with the saltiness and spice of the rice.
Cricket Pad Thai
Two dozen large crickets
Handful of dry roasted peanuts, crushed
Half a pound of rice noodles
One large Vidalia onion, chopped
Four cloves of garlic, minced
One hot pepper (again, I used Hot Cherry, but any will do), minced
Two tbs fish sauce
Two tbs tamarind paste
Two tbs brown sugar
One tbs olive oil
Juice of one lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Add noodles to pot of boiling water and cook until malleable, but not soft.
Heat oil in a large wok over medium heat. Add in the peanuts and crickets and cook until brown and crispy. Remove and set aside.
If necessary, add more oil to the pan. Fry peppers and garlic until garlic is fragrant. Add in onion and cook until soft. Lower heat and add the noodles into the pan, stirring in the vegetables until uniform. This can be difficult if the noodles are too soft, always shoot for under-cooked.
Once the mixture is blended, add in the tamarind paste, brown sugar and fish sauce and blend. The additional liquid from the paste and sauce will cook the noodles the rest of the way through. Once thoroughly blended, add in lime juice, salt and pepper, giving the noodles a couple final tosses to blend.
Place noodles in bowl and sprinkle with cricket and peanut mixture. Serve immediately.
Taste: The Pad Thai itself is wonderfully flavorful, with rich citrus notes shining through a backbone of sweetness. An addition of fresh grated ginger into the wok could really make this a top notch dish. The crickets themselves had a delightful crunch, and took on a lot of the peanuts' flavor, with some unique colors shining through. I'd liken the flavor to almost grassy, hinting at sweet asparagus. All in all interesting, and a really nice contrast to the rest of the meal.
This is a culinary frontier where the sky is the limit, and by no means should these recipes be the only options for the intrepid entomological chef. Swap in a healthy dose of ants for the ground beef in tacos, or fry up some beetles for a late night snack. Fulfill your dreams of being an elementary school bully and make a love interest eat a bug. Have an open mind and get cooking.