The bugs were late.
The shipment from Mexico was still in transit when chef Gustavo Romero was ready to add them to his colorfully crafted plates of aguachile, mole verde and empanadas.
Romero was doing a practice run of the tasting menu he was preparing for an upcoming pop-up at the Travail Collective in Minneapolis. The menu was designed to celebrate the cuisine of Romero’s city of origin, Mexico City.
Just as he was wondering if he’d have to find backup bugs, his creepy, crawly delicacies arrived: acociles (tiny crayfish), chinicuiles (dried red worms) and chicatanas (large ants that emerge after heavy rains in Oaxaca).
Using tweezers, Romero and Travail co-owner Mike Brown draped the chinicuiles over the empanadas, placed the chicatanas on a plate of bright green vegetables and used the acociles to add a splash of red to a leaf-wrapped piece of black cod.
Romero is betting Minnesotans are ready to consider bugs the same way he does — as delicious.
Insects have long been consumed all over the world, but Europeans and their descendants have largely overlooked the tiny critters as a food source. That might be changing.
Whether out of concern about feeding a growing global population, rising awareness of the environmental impact of industrial farming, health-conscious eaters looking for a robust source of protein, or foodies seeking an authentic food experience (and an instant hit on social media), bugs are now landing on local menus and even showing up at our biggest eat-a-thon, the Minnesota State Fair. (See a recipe for chocolate chip cookies here.)
“I think the internet helps people explore things a little differently now,” Brown said. “Things that seemed a little taboo, or a little bit weird, now are approachable.”
Fans of entomophagy (eating insects) say Americans’ budding interest in diversifying what’s on their plates is a long time coming.
“It’s become a reality,” said Daniella Martin, Minneapolis-based author of 2014’s “Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet.” She has been promoting entomophagy for years, holding cooking demos in schools and catering bug-filled corporate events. Until just a few years ago, she was one of a “small handful of voices” promoting the eating of insects.
That began to change in 2013, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations put out an influential report on edible insects. The report noted the many places around the world — particularly in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa — where certain bugs are, and always have been, considered food. It concluded that “Culture defines the rules on what is edible and what is not.”
That’s something Andrew Zimmern has long known. The Minnesota-based “Bizarre Foods” television host has made a living traveling the world and tasting foods you might be more likely to swat with a rolled-up magazine than put on your plate. But he, too, is seeing a change.
“People who have grown up only thinking of them as pests are aging out,” he said. “Young people who grew up watching food and travel television don’t have that cultural bias. It was only a matter of time.”
Recent headlines certainly make it seem as if insects could solve the world’s problems, from hunger to climate change. Edible insects are “the next big food source” (Forbes), the “protein of the future” (HuffPost) and “could help us save the planet” (BBC).
But eating bugs brings up the same questions the modern food industry is grappling with. Is it better to eat wild or farmed insects? How are laborers who raise and harvest them treated and paid? Who, ultimately, gets to eat them? And now that they are a “trendy” item, who is benefiting?
Still, some chefs serve bugs not to save the world, but for a much simpler reason: They taste good.
Taste and nutrition
The south Minneapolis Oaxacan restaurant Colita serves its sliced mackerel aguachile dish topped with chopped chapulines (grasshoppers) fried and seasoned with adobo.
“It’s one of the higher-selling dishes,” said chef Daniel del Prado, who hopes to add flying ant larvae to his menu in the future. “It has the texture of salmon roe.”
Northeast Minneapolis restaurant Costa Blanca Bistro introduced seven species of bugs to diners at a one-time Prehispanic Insect Dinner last summer.
And at Romero’s pop-up, called Kua, he’ll be sprinkling whole insects onto five dishes as part of a $20 upgrade to the $65 to $95 tasting menu. (The pop-up will run through September at Travail’s temporary location at 1930 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.)
“A lot of people think Mexican cuisine is just tacos,” Romero said. “We have a lot more, and insects are a large part of our culture. A lot of people are realizing it’s a huge source of protein with no fat. And for chefs, it really adds to the dish.”
What does it add exactly?
Texture, for one thing. The chinicuiles (worms) provide a crunch, while the acociles (crayfish) add some extra chew, which Brown calls “leatheriness.”
Then there’s the flavor. The bright red acociles have “almost a sea salt taste,” Romero said. “It reminds me of when it first starts raining, that humidity smell.” Chinicuiles have an earthy flavor. And chicatanas (ants) are naturally “garlicky,” Brown said. “It’s like a seasoning you’ve never tried before.” Plus versatile insects can be seasoned with everything from curry to chili.
But it’s the nutritional benefit, rather than taste or texture, that seems to be the easiest sell for people who struggle with the idea of eating something they’d rather see on the bottom of their shoe.
Crickets, in particular, are being touted as the new superfood for their protein content. Processed into a powder, the ground-up bugs are being added to smoothies and baked goods. Two tablespoons of cricket powder contain about 13 grams of protein, double the amount of protein in a handful of almonds.
It sounds like a summer night year-round in a warehouse in St. Louis Park. That’s because it’s home to 3 Cricketeers, a cricket farm operated by Chad Simons, a former attorney, and his wife, Claire Simons, a maternity nurse.
Banking on crickets as the next big health food, they recently installed a commercial kitchen for grinding cricket powder, baking energy bars and cricket cookies and roasting whole chili-lime crickets they will sell at the Hopkins Farmers Market. (People with shellfish allergies may be allergic to some insects, including crickets.)
The Simonses incubate cricket eggs in plastic bins inside a humid black tent, then house the insects in “condominiums” made of egg trays and cardboard dividers for the insects’ six-week life span. When the crickets reach about 1½ inches, they are ready to “harvest” by being euthanized in a walk-in freezer.
Claire Simons, a former vegan, regularly eats whole crickets as a snack, but she started ingesting insects by spiking her food with cricket powder.
University of Minnesota entomologist Sujaya Rao found that cricket powder was surprisingly palatable to fairgoers when she did taste tests of plain tortilla chips and chips made with ground crickets at the Minnesota State Fair last year.
“In my test of 170 people, they couldn’t tell the difference, and they liked the ones with crickets better,” Rao said. (She plans to be back at the fair this year with cricket brownies.)
Perhaps that’s why ground cricket meal is grabbing the attention of venture capital firms.
A 2018 report on edible insects by a London market research firm lists 22 “key players” that make cricket and other processed insect products. The market is expected to grow 24% over the next four years to more than $1 billion, as large food corporations start to integrate insect powder into their products.
Linking up to a large corporation is 3 Cricketeers’ goal. “We are hoping to be more of an ingredient and have bigger companies buy cricket powder,” Simons said.
No silver bullet
But introducing bugs as a source of protein won’t solve the inequities in the food system, said Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and co-author of 2018’s “Meal,” a graphic novel about a Minneapolis chef who dreams of cooking insects in a new restaurant.
“From my impression, the [insect] industry is a lot like coffee before we started talking about fair trade,” Ho said. “The locations are similar, the dynamics are similar, the level of exploitation is very similar, and that impulse toward neocolonialism on the part of Western entrepreneurs is similar, even if they have virtuous ideas about it.”
Citing the research of Andrew Müller, a German sociologist who’s written about entomophagy and power, Ho said that “any idea of edible insects as silver bullet to poverty or to hunger is bogus.”
And while slipping cricket powder into popular foods is a way of mainstreaming entomophagy, some purists say grinding insects into powder downplays the fact that bugs are living creatures, much like McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets seem to have little to do with chicken.
For urban hobby farmers who might be comfortable tending to chickens in their backyards, however, raising insects at home in, say, a mealworm cabinet — and consuming them whole — could be the next wave of the farm-to-table movement.
“Raising insects is an opportunity to be in control of a protein source that has not really been a thing an average American can do,” said Blue Delliquanti, a Minneapolis-based illustrator and co-author of “Meal.”
“Very few Americans can have a cow,” but the ease of raising and cooking one’s own bugs “is kind of refreshing, in a way,” said Delliquanti, who keeps bee larvae in the freezer to throw into omelets.
“I almost see it as training wheels for learning how to understand your food as coming from living beings.”
The taste of perception
In Mexico, Romero grew up foraging for insects, sent by his father and grandfather to collect them for pocket change. Armed with a clothes hanger, he would poke into the little black holes on the broad leaves of the maguey plant and coax out the chinicuiles, commonly recognized in the United States as the worms in the bottom of a mezcal bottle.
To him, a bite of chinicuiles “kind of tastes like home.”
Yet many Americans still have a culturally ingrained phobia to get over before an insect will ever cross their lips.
To them, Zimmern offers another point of view.
“To those who are hung up on this, I would just say, in Argentina, people think eating peanut butter is disgusting because they hate the texture,” Zimmern said. “I’ve shared Cheddar cheese with tribal peoples in Africa. And their comment to me was, ‘I don’t get it with you Americans. Why do you take perfectly good milk, let it rot, and then dry it into little squares?’
“My coda to that is it’s all about perception.”