Guess Who's Crawling to Dinner
Meeru Dhalwala, chef and co-owner of Shanik in Seattle and Vij’s in Vancouver, British Columbia, first tried insects herself in the summer of 2008 after she read a New York Times article about eating them.
“Before that I was a total bug scaredy cat. They gave me the heebie-jeebies,” says Chef Dhalwala, who serves crickets at her restaurants.
These days, she visits tables and asks if customers want to try the Cricket Paranta (unleavened bread). “It’s different, but delicious and super high in protein and iron,” she tells customers.
Often she’s met with a blank stare. More than once she’s heard the reply, “You mean real crickets?”
Dhalwala can tell diners are trying to figure out how to say no and still be polite. Then she tells them about how she feared eating insects and what changed her mind. It’s effective.
“I would say that 80 percent of the people I talk to will order the Cricket Paranta,” Chef Dhalwala says. “It has become my third best-selling appetizer, closely behind samosas and kabobs.”
While many Americans view insects as pests that destroy crops and spoil picnics, 80 percent of the world’s nations regularly consume bugs. Natives of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Africa, and Mexico, for example, regularly eat crickets, grasshoppers, ants, silkworms, scorpions and tarantulas.
"Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish," according to a 2013 report compiled by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Framed as an alternative source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, bugs are slowly crawling onto menus in the U.S.
World Entomophagy—entomophagy meaning the consumption of insects as food—is a nonproft that provides edible insect ingredients and whole insects to chefs and adventurous home eaters. According to Harman Johar, CEO and founder of the company, the most popular insects for restaurants now are crickets—which are also the most cost effective and highest in protein—followed by scorpions, mealworms, and waxworms, in that order.
“Serving insects is an increasing trend with restaurants,” says Johar. “Since 2013 our restaurant clientele has doubled.”
World Entomophagy also sells whole crickets, which contain 57 percent protein, 18.55 percent fat, and between 16.4 and 19.1 percent fiber. He says chips, cleverly marketed as chirps, made from his organization’s cricket powder have three times the protein of leading chips on the market and half the fat.
“Insects are also insanely sustainable; they save water, land, don’t produce methane gases like cows and their slow replacement into our culinary culture will significantly impact the environment,” Johar says.
Diners, who may be concerned about getting sick, often want to know where the insects come from.
In order to make the customer’s experience with edible insects a positive one, a safe, reliable source is a must. Johar says insects sold by pet stores might be too low of a quality for human consumption, while international sources often have fewer food regulations, so their bugs may contain lead, mercury, and chemicals.
“There’s a steep learning curve with this new food product, so a trustworthy source is a must,” he explains.
Chef Dhalwala agrees that a restaurant needs to have a dependable source, which is why she uses World Entomophagy, where all insect products are certified.
Hugo Ortega is executive chef and co-owner of three restaurants in Houston including Hugo’s and Backstreet Café. At Hugo’s, Chef Ortega serves Chapulines, sautéed grasshoppers with guacamole, tortillas, and chipotle tomatillo salsa at Hugo’s. This three-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist (including 2014) says he gets his grasshoppers from a friend in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico and he knows they are safe to eat because they’ve been tested at a laboratory at the University of Mexico.
Before ordering, many patrons may be curious about the flavor of the critters. Johar says mealworms taste earthy, oily, and nutty with an almost cocoa-like flavor. Grasshoppers, meanwhile, have a crunch and taste salty and spicy, says Chef Ortega.
Chef Dhalwala’s paranta dish contains spiced, roasted, and ground crickets, which are combined with as much flour, so the dish is half crickets and half flour. “Each order receives 100 crickets. The cricket flavor seems leafy and a little woodsy,” she says.
Chef Dhalwala says placing crickets on her menu is the determining factor that attracts customers to Shanik, even if they don’t order the bug dish. She also likes to sing the praises of insects over beef. If eating a five-ounce beefsteak is like driving a big SUV, she says, munching on the equivalent in insects resembles riding a bike.
“People didn’t embrace sushi at first either,” says Dhalwala. “But now they love it.”
By Heather Larson