Flash in the Pan 

Bugging out

Have you ever bit into a chocolate bar and found a bug part? If not, you probably weren’t looking closely. Current FDA regulations allow up to 10 bug parts per hundred grams of chocolate—and even more for peanut butter.

By some estimates, 80 percent of all animal biomass is bug parts. And because bugs are pretty much everywhere, there are no true vegans. Everyone has eaten bugs, from the slug in your salad to the fly in your soup.

In many parts of the world, this is no big deal—people have intentionally eaten bugs for centuries, and continue to do so. But in the English-speaking world, bug eating is generally considered gross.

It’s strange considering shrimp, lobsters and other bugs of the sea are so popular, despite the fact that they’re bottom feeders, while most edible land insects are clean-living leaf munchers.

Many such herbivores, it turns out, are extremely efficient at converting plant matter into animal protein—much more efficient than normal livestock. If crickets are fed a diet comparable to a cow’s, for example, the cricket can build between 6 and 20 times the amount of edible body tissue as the cow. Gram for gram, crickets have more protein than any red meat, and a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids.

This is a big reason why advocates of entomophagy, or bug-eating, are writing books, teaching classes, conducting scientific research and otherwise greasing the wheels of the upcoming bug-eating revolution. The latest such work, titled Ecological Implications of Minilivestock, provides a compendium of papers on how eating small animals—including insects, frogs, snails and rodents—offers a way to feed the world.

Now, if only we can get around the gross part.

When I was an undergrad, some of my classmates played a game called “Eat Bugs for Money,” as part of the annual end-of-year bash.

At the start of each round, a bug would be displayed—anything from some larva to a three-inch Madagascar hissing cockroach.

“Who wants to eat this [cup of earthworms, non-venomous scorpion, etc.] for $20 dollars?” announced the master of ceremonies, and thus began the bidding. The only rules were the winner, usually a drunk boy, had to chew with his mouth open, and no bids under $1 were accepted.

As with many things that occur while drunk, after the fact you might wonder if the booze made you do it, or if the booze gave you permission to do what you wanted, deep down, to do all along.

I would squirm just trying to watch, etomophagical lightweight that I am, and the booze didn’t even help.
Since then, I’ve crossed paths with bug eaters on numerous occasions. Once, at a restaurant in Korea, I watched a plate of creepy-crawlies get served to some folks who nabbed the worms with chopsticks as they crawled off the plate and wiggled about the table. I’m not proud of this, but I had to bail.

I don’t know why the thought of eating creepy-crawlies gives me the heebie-jeebies. But in Bangkok last year I decided it was time to get over it. It was late at night, and the street was crowded with young partiers. 

More than 150 insect species are eaten in Thailand, and the street vendor who sold me my bug had about 10 different stainless steel bins of various insects, most of them deep-fried. I’d heard that deep fried grasshoppers are good with beer.

It tasted like a potato chip, or any other type of fried crispy thing—a random bit or piece of crunchy fried chicken. And like most any crispy-fried, salty thing, it did taste good with beer.

Public sentiment on entomophagy varies widely, with most bug eaters being rich and exotic or poor and desperate. In many African countries, bug eating has become stigmatized as starvation food by the young and the wealthy. But elsewhere, including some countries with particularly refined culinary traditions, like Thailand, bugs are a delicacy. In Mexico, a plate of maguey worms at a fancy restaurant can cost $25. In Japan, people shell out for aquatic larvae called zazamushi, which are popular sautéed with soy sauce and sugar.

But since the majority of the world’s middle class remains hesitant to eat bugs, some clever Dutch scientists are seeking to make an end-run around the squeamish factor by delivering bug protein to the food supply another way.

In vats, they’re culturing ovary cells from various worms and larva. With these high-protein ovary cells—but no antennae, buggy eyes or other recognizable insect parts—the scientists hope to slip their bug protein into burgers, breads and other processed foods.

And why not? Modern consumers have demonstrated, repeatedly, their willingness to eat just about anything so long as it’s processed into oblivion and packaged nicely. Our love of the hot dog and other presentations of mystery meat are well known. So maybe bug powder can indeed save the world, one bug dog at a time.

Ask Ari: Satisfying a honey’s hunger

Q: Dear Ari,

My first attempt at cooking morels was a simple sauté served over grilled steak—not so special, and not particularly impressive. But last night—wow—I made my first morel cream sauce, a reduction of shallots and morels in white wine, chicken stock and cream, served over chicken. Yum! The cream seemed to bring out the distinctive, delicate flavor of the morels. My girlfriend swooned.

I’m scheming to satisfy my honey’s hunger for morel sauce all year long, even after the fresh ones disappear from the farmer’s market. My first idea seemed far-fetched—make a bunch of sauce and freeze it. So now I’m looking for a way to preserve mushrooms plain, and use them up as the year wears on.

What’s the best method?

Flirting with Fungus

A: I think making your sauce now, Fungus, with fresh morels and then freezing it is actually a good option. You’ve found a recipe you like, and you want to enjoy it year-round. Just make sure there’s enough liquid in the sauce that no morel chunks are sticking above it.

For long-term morel storage, dehydrating the morels is the way to go. It takes up no freezer space, and you have more options. The tricky part with dried mushrooms is re-hydrating them, which is best done slowly. Bring a cup of water to simmer with a cube of stock, and slowly pour it over your dried morels, tossing them as you pour. Leave covered a few hours, checking once in a while to make sure they aren’t thirsty. There should always be just a little liquid at the bottom of the pan, but the morels shouldn’t be swimming. This way, they should come back to life perfectly, and your lady will swoon through the winter.

For those who want to try my version of the morel/sherry/crème winning combination, check out the paper’s archives at missoulanews.com—use “sherry” as the keyword—and click on my June 2005 column.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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