Exploring the Flavor Profiles of Bugs
Imagine that you have a friend who is an artist. She paints beautiful pictures, but only uses red, pink, and yellow. She can make lovely paintings, but one day you show her the other rainbow of colors that exist – the blues, greens, purples, oranges, silvers, and more. Now she can make even more vivid paintings. That’s where we are in the culinary world. We have a huge range of raw ingredients that chefs use, but there are rainbows of additional flavors to explore. Welcome to the world of edible bugs.
Written by Aly Moore, Founder of Bugible
Back in the 1960s, sushi was considered barbaric. We couldn’t understand why people would eat raw fish. Slowly but surely, more businessmen from Japan started doing business in California. They started requesting sushi, but we were not sold. Then, a clever chef introduced the California Roll. He disguised the fish in rolls of rice and avocado, making the dish less intimidating for Americans. Photographs emerged of celebrities eating this new dish and it went from being barbaric to trendy. Now, we can’t get enough of it!
It is my hope that bugs will take a similar path. But we have to take a few steps to get there. One of the biggest factors is the name— we don’t eat raw fish, we eat sushi. We don’t eat cows, we eat beef. We don’t even necessarily eat plants, we eat vegetables. A different name for bugs may be the path that we have to follow.
It’s also important to note that bugs are easier on the environment than traditional protein sources, they’re packed with nutrition and can taste great. They are not the only solution to sustainably feed our growing population, but they are the most provocative.
INSTEAD OF ASKING WHY WE EAT BUGS, WE SHOULD BE ASKING, WHY NOT?
Some put bugs into three unofficial flavor categories. The first nutty and earthy. Crickets and mealworms are examples of bugs that taste a little like seeds, nuts, or mushrooms. The second is fishy and seafood-like. Locusts and scorpions are examples of bugs that have been compared to crab. The third is meaty and savory. Sago grubs are often called the bacon of the bug world.
A big step along the way to normalcy is to get chefs on board. Chefs are the “Gate Keepers of Consumer Preference” and continue to expand our cuisines with innovative concepts and eclectic menus. It’s not uncommon for one chef alone to drive a vibrant micro-food culture in a city, thus expanding appreciation for new foods and dishes that can impact customers’ attitudes nationwide.
Over the last three years, for example, we have seen a trend of vegetable-focused menus. The results is a “normalization” of vegetable dishes as fully belonging on acclaimed menus and as vehicles for culinary creativity. If bugs are to earn a place on casual menus, it will be critical for chefs to champion our efforts. While several restaurants, especially Oaxacan or other ethnic cuisines, are experimenting with bugs on the menu, this practice could become much more common if chefs had more access to education and supplies of edible insects.
The more we work to explore the flavors and uses of insects in cuisine, the more frequently we might see the occasional salad topped with black ants, margarita glass rimmed with grasshopper salt, or bread baked with cricket powder. This might not be immediately obvious until we learn more about these ingredients. Below, check out some of the ways you can incorporate these ingredients into your dishes!
Black ants have a naturally acidic quality from the formic acid in their systems, giving them a zesty lemon-pepper taste. Their texture reminds some of roe, and they are often affectionately refer to them as the caviar of the bug world. While some bugs can star as the feature in dishes, black ants are more likely to serve as garnishes and flavor-enhancers. Imagine their zesty flavor and striking color sprinkled on top of grilled shrimp, tossed into an arugula salad, or even as a topper for the popular childhood dish “ants on a log!”
There are grasshoppers, and then there are Chapulines. Really, they mean the same thing (one in English and one in Spanish.) But I often use the distinction to refer to unseasoned grasshoppers vs. those flavored Oaxacan-style.
Plain, their flavor will still be strong – a savory umami, a bit like miso. Some describe an acidic mushroomy earthiness.. If you’ve ever rubbed hay in your hands, you will understand how this tastes. It’s a bit like unprocessed wheat, or similar to raw pasta. Often confused for crickets, grasshoppers share the familiar skeletal crunch with a meaty and more chewy texture (grasshoppers supposedly have longer migratory patterns and thus have more muscle on their bodies.)
Seasoned, perhaps with “Adobo flavor,” the Chapulines become a delicious snack. They smell like Christmas, chili, and citrus all in one, and tasting them will leave you with just a hint of pine on your pallet. They taste of a beautiful smoky spice with a hint of sour, sometimes also wonderfully fruity. Seasoned with a bit of lime, chili, and tajin, grasshoppers are able to hold onto a cool, lingering heat.
Crickets are one of the most commonly farmed bugs in the US. This is not because they are the best bugs, but simply because we know the most about optimizing their breeding cycles, nutrient contents, and flavor profiles. Crickets are best described as flavor vehicles like potato chips. They are often seasoned with flavors like BBQ or lime, as their plain taste can be difficult to distinguish.
Unseasoned, they taste a bit like edamame and have an earthy umami quality. Regardless, a nutty, woodsy flavor comes through, sometimes accompanied by a shrimp quality (from the high omega-3 content). Crickets are also commonly ground up into a powder that can be used in baking, substituting 5 – 20% of the dry ingredients.
We’ve made progress in this dialogue as a society before: remember that the creeping, shelled, 10-legged crustacean we now so lovingly dip in butter (ahem, the lobster) was once considered so repulsive as to be inhumane to feed to prisoners. And in many parts of the world, bugs are already a popular—and important—menu item. Let’s continue to open minds and mouths with six-legged livestock.
About Aly Moore
My name is Aly Moore and I eat bugs. It might sound strange to many, but bugs are sustainable, packed with nutrition, and tasty when prepared correctly. While studying public health and food policy at Yale University, I took a trip to Mexico and tried grasshoppers for the first time. After returning to the States, my impish inclinations led me to research how to buy bugs safe for human consumption in the U.S. (to prank friends and family, of course.) Due to the lack of information available back in 2012, I ended up calling the owners of a few cricket farms, and those discussions changed my life. I soon began working closely with bug companies to educate western consumers about this stigmatized food.
I created Bugible, a blog about the world of edible insects, to share what I was learning. To reach broader audiences, I started hosting fun and memorable events around eating bugs to create atmospheres where first-time-bug-eaters could feel more at ease (like bug wine pairings, bug dinners, and bug cooking classes.) EatBugsEvents.com emerged as a way to make entomophagy accessible, educate the public, and support the great bug-entrepreneurs.
This blog post was originally published by the International Culinary Center (ICC), founded as The French Culinary Institute (FCI). In 2020, ICE and ICC came together on one strong and dynamic national platform at ICE's campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. Explore your culinary education where the legacy lives on.