Bug bites: Insects are on the menu at Puget Sound restaurants

Bugs that mainstream USA calls creepy-crawlies are on the menu at Puget Sound restaurants

Staff writerMarch 21, 2014 

Something was bugging me. My dinner, to be exact. I was about to chow down on a pancake made from crickets.

I was at Shanik, an Indian-themed restaurant in Seattle. It’s one of a handful of restaurants in Puget Sound that are serving insects as a (very small) part of their cuisine.

Insects are eaten the world over, from Thailand to Mexico. But whenever the subject comes up in America, it’s usually met with shock and revulsion. After all, insects in your food are something you complain about, not something you actually order.

There’s one thing you can count on when someone talks about the insects eaten in foreign lands. “It’s a delicacy in that country,” they’ll invariably say.

Foreigners probably say the same thing about Americans and ketchup.

Eating bugs is not only good for us, but it’s good for the planet. A 2013 United Nations report urged more people to become entomophages — insect eaters. Bugs are high in protein and calories, can reduce global food scarcity, and have a small carbon footprint. Six really small footprints, to be exact.

“Insects are not harmful to eat — quite the contrary,” said Eva Muller, a director with the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization. “They are nutritious, they have a lot of protein and are considered a delicacy in many countries.”

See?

The report said that some 1,900 insect species supplement the diets of 2 billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Some of the most common include beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets.

“Most (insects) are just collected, and there’s very little experience in insect farming, for example, which is something that could be explored in view of a growing population,” Muller said.

One suspects that Ms. Muller has poorly attended dinner parties.

If you doubt the U.N., then listen to the Bible. It, too, gives the green light on eating bugs: “Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.”

So there it was. I was on a mission from God. To eat bugs.

THE ICK FACTOR

First, I would need to overcome my own personal prejudices. I tried to think comparatively. Crabs are nothing more than spiders with delicious legs. And honey? I have two words for you: bee barf.

Then I thought about all the mosquitoes, fleas, gnats and ticks that have taken a bite out of me over the years — not to mention that worm that crawled out of my arm in West Africa.

There was that run-in one steamy night with army ants on the Mayan Peninsula. And I still have flashbacks to the Mormon cricket invasion that surrounded my Jeep on a mountain top in Nevada.

Vengeance was mine. I would strike back like the windshield of a ’57 Cadillac.

Still, I had concerns. Would I get sick? Would I become a social pariah? Would I develop an urge to lay waste to wheat fields?

SHANIK

“I get very excited when someone orders the crickets,” said Meeru Dhalwala as she stood next to my table at Shanik, the restaurant she owns at South Lake Union in Seattle. She had come out of the kitchen to see who had ordered them.

Dhalwala spices, roasts and grinds up crickets and mixes them with chipati flour and buttermilk to make her pancake-like parantas. The $10 dish is served with spicy tomato chutney. Each plate-sized paranta uses about 100 crickets.

Dhalwala has an impressive résumé. She and Vikram Vij own the regionally famous Vancouver, B.C., restaurants Vij’s and Rangoli. But her foray into insect cooking gave her a whole new level of fame when she started serving insects at her Canadian restaurants in 2008.

“It turned me into a celebrity … but did nothing for The Cause,” she said.

The Cause — insect-eating — is something that Dhalwala deeply believes in.

“Insects are a much more sustainable and efficient source of iron and protein than chicken and beef,” she said.

But she’s not trying to get people to give up meat. She would just like to see insects substitute for it occasionally: “If you are eating meat five times a week, then eat crickets once a week.”

She wants to slowly introduce insects into the diets of willing North Americans. “I don’t want to shove them into your face,” she said.

On a busy Friday night she’ll sell 12 to 15 cricket parantas. “I’m getting such an enthusiastic response here — especially from my younger diners,” she said.

Dhalwala just added the cricket dish to her menu at Shanik this winter. Most of her diners come for the samosas, chicken in saffron curry, and lamb popsicles.

“The health department shuts down restaurants for cockroaches, but here I am serving crickets,” Dhalwala said.

But they are more than a novelty item for her. “I wouldn’t serve it if didn’t taste good,” she said.

My friend Tyler Sipe organized the night’s dinner at Shanik. Because there were four of us at the table sharing one paranta, I figured I ate about 25 crickets that night. Which is exactly 25 more crickets than I had eaten in my entire life.

The paranta was full of savory flavor. I wanted more. But because the ground crickets make up only half of the dish, we still weren’t sure what cricket tasted like. So Dhalwala toasted a handful and brought them to our table. Sipe, who, I was learning, will eat anything, made a Jiminy Cricket joke and then immediately popped one into his mouth.

The crickets tasted like a cracker alternative, like the kind you’d find in a natural foods store. The flavor was mild and pleasant.

POQUITOS

Next up on my expedition was Poquitos, a popular Mexican-themed eatery on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. I was on the hunt for chapulines: toasted grasshoppers eaten in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The dish was the brain child of Poquitos head chef Manny Arce. “I just put them on (the menu) as more of a shock value. But they took off,” Arce said.

About 25 orders a day come in for the chapulines, which are imported from Mexico fully cooked and vacuum-packed. Arce pan-roasts them with lime, salt and chilies. At $2 for a small bowl, he’s practically giving them away.

“To me they just taste like a peanut,” Arce said. “But it’s not something I want to eat by the handful.”

While some of his diners order them for the novelty, Arce said he also gets natives of Oaxaca looking for a taste of home. “They are just excited to have them,” Arce told me. “They are a delicacy for them.”

Sipe joined me for lunch at Poquitos. When I told him we’d be having grasshoppers, he knew I wasn’t talking about the minty cocktail.

The little hoppers were a burnt sienna color, which is a nicer way of saying they were bug-colored. They tasted different from the crickets we had at Shanik. Salty, spicy and earthy, the grasshoppers burst with every bite.

“I’m just happy that their internal juices explode in my mouth,” Sipe said. Before I could ask him just where else he thought they might explode — under his shoe? — he added enthusiastically, “I wonder what a 2-inch cricket would be like.”

When Sipe tried to use a grasshopper leg as a toothpick, I suggested we order some chicken tacos. A little grasshopper goes a long way, and our server seemed disappointed we hadn’t finished the entire bowl of chapulines.

“I sometimes wish we had them alive,” she said dejectedly. “But they arrive dead.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com

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