The idea of entomophagy--eating insects--is generally received with grimaces and gag reflexes by Westerners. But globally speaking, chomping on bugs is on par with devouring, say, lobsters or chicken wings. From grasshoppers to cockroaches, creepy crawly things are consumed for their high protein content, appealing crunchiness, and straight-up taste. In many societies, insects are considered a delicacy. Even stateside, the concept of insects as food has slowly been gaining ground (and not only on Fear Factor episodes).
Annual "bug cook-offs" have been held in cities including Los Angeles, Memphis, Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va., and insects have been creeping into high-profile spots, like the most recent season of Top Chef Masters. "I call it the green food of the future," says chef, entomophagy expert, and retired East Carolina University biology professor Hal Daniel. He is among a growing chorus of folks who, in the face of a growing food shortage, believe that insects are the perfect sustainable food for the future of the planet.
Here, we offer a rundown of some of the world's favorite tasty critters.
Palm Weevil Larva
Where It's Eaten: Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia.
How: A rural staple that's high in protein, potassium, and calcium, this fat grub is eaten in one of several ways: straight from the tree; skewered and roasted over hot coals; or fried in sago flour and then wrapped in a sago leaf, like a tamale.
Taste: coconut (raw) or bacon (cooked).
Where It's Eaten: Australia, Colombia, Thailand.
How: In Australia, honeypot ants--which gorge themselves until their bellies swell to the size of grapes with a nectar-like substance--are eaten raw as sweet treats by aborigines. In Colombia, a variety of leaf-cutter ant, called hormigas culonas or "big-assed ants," is eaten toasted, like popcorn or peanuts. Red ants and their eggs are consumed sautéed or in salads in Thailand.
Taste: Lemony, vinegary, or sweet-and-sour, respectively.
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Where It's Eaten: Mexico, Southern Africa.
How: High in vitamin B but releasing such a stink that it has to be seeped out (by soaking in warm water) before being eaten, these critters are at the center of a Jumil Festival near Taxco, in Mexico. There, folks harvest the bugs in the woods and either eat them alive--they apparently live for a while even after being beheaded--or ground up with chiles in tacos, before crowning a Jumil Queen. In Africa, they are beheaded, squeezed (to empty out a green gland), and then boiled and sun-dried, and eaten as snacks.
Taste: Like a blend of cinnamon and iodine.
Where It's Eaten: Cambodia and Venezuela.
How: Tarantula spiders--technically arachnids, not insects--are commonly fried in oil, salt, and sugar, and sometimes garlic, till crisp, then sold as street food in Cambodia, where they are eaten whole. The legs are crunchy, while the fat little abdomens are gooey. In the jungles of Venezuela, the Piaroa people consider the Goliath bird-eating tarantulas--which can grow to the size of a dinner plate--to be a delicacy and roast them over a fire.
Taste: Crab-like and nutty.
Where It's Eaten: West Africa, Australia, parts of South America.
How: Often eaten raw as tasty snacks, termites are plucked right out of whatever wood they are feasting on or caught en masse around lights, where they also like to swarm. Then they are sold at markets and brought home to be roasted over hot coals or fried in oil.
Taste: Like carrots.
Where It's Eaten: New Zealand.
How: Resembling big, fat maggots but treated as a delicacy in New Zealand, these fellas are eaten either as a raw snack or sautéed as a special meal by their fans who find them burrowing into the rotting wood of tree trunks. The grubs eat the wood, making them rich in protein and therefore even more desirable.
Taste: Like peanut butter.
Where It's Eaten: Japan.
How: Called hachinoko, the pale yellow larvae of wasps or bees are harvested carefully from nests, cooked in soy sauce and sugar, and eaten as a crunchy snack--often with a sprinkling of cooked adult wasps in the mix, too.
Taste: Sweet and crunchy.
Where It's Eaten: Japan, China, all over Asia, in many parts of the U.S.
How: Periodical cicadas spend most of their lives--up to 17 years--living underground and sucking sap from tree roots. But when they emerge to reproduce and die, plenty of folks (including a great many throughout parts of the U.S.) are waiting to catch them before their skins harden, so they can boil or fry them and eat them--kind of as we would with shrimp--as an integrated part of a meal. The singing critters are low in fat and contain 30 to 40 percent protein. Annual cicadas, meanwhile, live anywhere from two to seven years and are caught with much more ease and eaten in much the same way--boiled, fried, or sautéed.
Taste: Asparagus or clammy potato.
Where It's Eaten: Indonesia.
How: Boiled or fried as a special treat, these mosquito-eaters are caught by brandishing a slender palm-wood stick dipped in sticky tree sap and then just waiting for them to land.
Taste: Similar to soft-shell crab.
Where They're Eaten: Mexico.
How: The eggs of the giant black Liometopum ant, sometimes called "insect caviar," are harvested from agave plant roots. They're either boiled or fried in butter to be eaten in tacos, or are presented in a bowl with a side of tortillas for the popular dish escamoles.
Taste: Buttery and nutty, with the consistency of cottage cheese.
Where It's Eaten: Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe.
How: Many types of caterpillars are eaten all over the world. In parts of Africa, the specific type of fat blue-and-green spiky caterpillar that lives in the mopane tree is prized as a protein-packed free food. After being squeezed to expel green slime from its gut, the worm is dried in the sun or smoked and almost always served with sauce or in a stew to lend it some flavor.
Taste: Bland to buttery.
Where It's Eaten: Mexico.
How: Roasted to a crunch and tossed with chile and lime, chapulines sit in huge mounds at street stands and in markets in Oaxaca. Vendors sell them to folks who consume them by the handful, just like chips.
Taste: Salty and spicy.
Where It's Eaten: Vietnam, China, Korea.
How: The silkworm itself is an edible byproduct of the silk industry, as manufacturers only use the bugs' cocoons to make the cloth. These squirmy little guys are seasoned and boiled in Korea, and fried in China and Vietnam.
Taste: Briny, similar to dried shrimp, with a chewy consistency.
Where It's Eaten: Thailand.
How: These massive critters are a popular snack in Thailand, commonly found in Bangkok street stalls, where they are eaten whole, fried with spicy sauce, or steamed. They're also available roasted and sealed in a can.
Taste: Briny and fruity with a fish-like consistency.
Where It's Eaten: Vietnam, Thailand, China.
How: Also technically an arachnid, not an insect, the scorpion is usually served as street food--scooped up alive and wriggling, skewered on a kebab, and deep-fried in oil.
Taste: Like soft-shell crab or shrimp in its shell.