Why Not Bugs?

What is it that Australian Aborigines, Kung Bushmen of South Africa, Chinese Peasants and connoisseurs of haute cuisine in Europe know that the average American does not? They know that bugs make for some mighty fine eating!

Modern Americans with our cultural bias against the very idea of eating bugs and insects have missed out on the opportunity to enjoy not only some good tasting foods, but also an excellent source of nutrition. Not only are bugs are much higher in protein (40 to 50% as compared to 20% for beef) than steak, they pound for pound provide more usable "meat" than traditional sources such as beef and poultry.

The average American has no problem chowing down on such delicacies as shrimp, lobster, chicken and even frog legs, but gag at the very thought of eating a crunchy grasshopper. As foragers, we have no problem with eating cactus roots, yucca fruit, thimble berries and day lily tubers but shy away at the thought of turning over a log and harvesting a bonanza of fat white grubs.

Just once, turn off your cultural bias against eating creepy crawley critters and give some of the following ideas a try. You might surprise yourself at just how good some these taste. The American Indians and even the early white and black settlers had no such bias and made use of some insects as a part of their normal diet at least on occasion.

Calvin W. Schwabe, in his book Unmentionable Cuisine, relates the following recipe which was prepared out west.

Locusts and grasshoppers are prepared for cooking by removing the wings, the small legs, and the distal portions of the hind legs. Then pull of the head, withdrawing the attached viscera.

Boil prepared Rocky Mountain Locusts (Grasshoppers) in salted water. Add cut-up vegetables, butter, salt, and vinegar to the broth and cook until the vegetables are tender. Serve as a thick soup or over boiled rice as a main dish.

Other societies around the world have no such qualms about utilizing insects as either an occasional nutritional addition and, sometimes, as a survival food. I came across a article on the Internet in which the writer relates having served in the African country of Ghana for many years in the field of agricultural research. At the time of spring planting the people would be very weak from a lack of staple food crops. Fortunately forthem the first spring rains also stimulated the emergence of countless numbers of winged termites. The natives gathered these and ate them fried, roasted and ground into a nutritious flour. It was these bounties of termites that in lean years would spell the difference in survival and starvation. Termites are very high in proteins, fats and oils, all essential constituents of a nutritious diet. Ghana is in West Africa, while in East Africa individual mounds are often claimed by families as their own and passed down to their children.

Along with termites, crickets and grasshoppers are eaten whole, roasted or ground into flour. He went on to say that in Zimbabwe stores, dried Mopane worms, a type of caterpillar could be purchased while Nigeria was producing "stock" cubes from termites and in North Africa, locust eggs were mixed with flour to bake bread. Ants and beetle grubs are also popularly eaten insects.

China has a long history in making use of insects, a tradition which persists to this day. Bee keepers in China have a reputation for virility which is due in part from the honeybee larvae they consume. Eaten live, they are said to have a sweet creamy taste like oysters.

Cicada nymphs, wasp larvae/pupae and ants were eaten as delicacies by Chinese royalty while locusts were eaten by the commoners. To this day, the pupae of silkworms which have produced silk are eaten as stir-fry after the mid-gut has been removed. Fried scorpions are eaten in some parts of the country while dragonflies are also consumed.

Countries of the East and Far East enthusiastically make use of a wide variety of insects as food. In Korea and the Philippines, peasants flood rice fields catching thousands of grasshoppers as they flee the rising water. These are then roasted or added to soups and stir-fry dishes. In Bali and China, Laos, Japan and Thailand, grilled and roasted Dragonflies are popular after first being de-winged. In the Philippines, June beetles, grasshoppers, ants, mole crickets, water beetles, katydids, locusts and dragonfly larvae are utilized as food.

In the Guangdong province of southern China, predacious diving beetles and giant water bugs are eaten. A similar giant water bug is popular in Thailand and has made it across the Pacific to California with the influx of immigrants from that region.

Schwabe, in Unmentionable Cuisine, notes that in Thailand, a popular recipe was Bee Grubs in Coconut Cream (Mang Non Won). The grubs were marinated with sliced onions, citrus leaves in coconut cream, pepper and then wrapped in pieces of linen and steamed. This was then used as a topping for rice.

In the island nation of New Guinea, the sago palm plays host to a grub known as the sago grub. This is broiled or roasted over and open fire before being eaten. They also eat moth larvae, wasps, dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, stick insects and crickets.

I have always been fascinated by the Aborigines of Australia because of their close relationship to the land and its flora and fauna. One of their favorite "foods" are Witchetty grubs, the caterpillar of a giant moth. They also enjoy beetle grubs known as bardees and green tree ants
mashed into a paste with water and used as a drink. Oecophylla ant are relished for the sweet and sour flavoring contained within their swollen abdomens. This is also considered to be a thirst quencher.

Another favorite insect food is Bogong moths which are found in great quantities during the winter months in the mountains. During large feasts the moths are mashed, kneaded into balls and roasted over an open fire. These are considered a great delicacy. Witchetty grubs are now being served in some Australian restaurants. The only problem with enjoying Bogong moths is due to some unknown toxin in the moths which causes the first time partaker to suffer violent stomach spasms, nausea and vomiting. This is supposed to be similar to the poisoning caused by eating the liver of polar bears which are extremely high in vitamin A.

The Montegnards of the Central Highlands of Vietnam had an interesting way of preparing and eating crickets. These would be placed in a jar for 24 hours to rid themselves of fecal matter and bitter taste. They were then placed in a cloth bag and hung by the fire to slowly dry cook. They were also sometimes slowly heated over the fire in a cooking pot. Afterwards they were eaten either as a snack or in rice dishes.

In the New World, the eating of insects and bugs is no less entrenched in the cultures of the indigenous people and European settlers. Aboriginal North American Indians especially out West extensively used grasshoppers, grubs, cicadas and moths as part of their daily diet. Ants were also
consumed to a certain extent though not as often as grasshoppers which seem to be the main insect eaten in America.

Mexico, and Central and South America have and still have a culinary tradition that encompasses a wide range of insects. In Ecuador white Cyclocephala beetles are cooked with pork and vegetable while in the Amazonia region of the country, Cicadas and Cerambucid (Long Horn Beetle) larvae are used. Lemon ants are eaten live while "Hormiga Culona," a large ant is fried and eaten.

In Mexico ants and grasshoppers are very popular. In the southern part of the country, Atta cephalotes, are eaten when the winged females emerge to mate. These are said to taste good, containing 42% protein. In Oaxaca, "Jumiles," a type of stink bug is used in making a salsa which tastes like mint and cinnamon. Redlegged grasshoppers are sometimes marinated in lemon juice, salt and chile for a spicy dish. In Mexico City, tortillas are served with red and white agave worms.

According to F.H.E. Philippi in 1864, there was a tribe in the Andes Mountains of South America which collected Dryopoid beetles. These were dried, ground and used as a spicy additive for foods.

In Middle Eastern tradition, the eating of insects can be dated back as far as the Bible. In Leviticus 11:20-23, God when given specific instructions as to which foods are clean and therefore ok to use, insects are discussed. Locusts, bald locusts, beetles and grasshoppers are all given the ok to be consumed. Later in the New Testament we read that John the Baptist lived in the desert on wild locusts and honey. Even today,the Ancient Greeks and Romans were connoisseurs of Entomophagy, the eating of insects. Locusts and cicadas were popular among both the rich and poor while gilded, honeyed locusts were reserved for Roman Aristocracy. Stag beetle larvae were fed on wine and bran for months before being consumed at grand banquets by the royal family and their friends.

Getting Started
Before you munch down on your first fat white grub dug out of a rotten log, try to start out with some of the more tolerable (at least to Americans) insects. Go to a local grocery store and buy a can of commercial escargot (snails) Most people can make the transition by enjoying this french delicacy. Next, you might want to start with mealworms, crickets and eventually bee larvae from a local bee keeper All of these can be found either at your local bait store or pet shop. They can also be mail ordered. From there you can start experimenting with some of the more exotic insects such as beetle grubs, cicadas, ants and grasshoppers.

As you are out foraging keep a sharp eye out for wild bee trees, June bugs, grasshoppers (easy to catch as they are sluggish in the morning before the temperature rises), wasp nests and rotten logs where you can get both beetle grubs and their fat larvae. Just squeeze the larvae to somewhat clean their intestines out and enjoy raw! If you want, they can be dry roasted on the hot rocks of your camp fire. When you become real adventuresome, you might want to try fly maggots. These may sound really gross but actually make a good addition to soups and stews.

Start off with some of these easy to make and (gulp!) eat recipes.

Mealworms (Tenebrio molitar larvae) with Herbs and Spices
Place larvae in with a cup of fresh bran overnight. The next day sift out the larvae, wash and towel dry. Coarsely chop, and add to onions and garlics with a dash of white wine. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of mixed herbs.

Mealworm Dip

  • 2 cups low-fat cottage cheese
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons skim milk
  • 1/2 cup reduced calorie mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped onion
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon
  • dill weed
  • 1 cup mealworms
Blend the first 3 ingredients. Add the remaining ingredients and chill. Use with chips.

Chocolate Chirpie Cookies

  • 2 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup softened sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 12-ounce bag of chocolate chips
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 1/2 cup dry-roasted crickets
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt; set aside. In large bowl, combine butter, sugar, brown sugar and vanilla; beat until creamy. Beat in eggs. Gradually add flour mixture and insects, mixing well. Stir in chocolate chips. Drop spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet and bake 8-10 minutes.

Honeybee Larvae and Pupae
Take a handful of larvae and brown in a lightly oil skillet . Drain and sprinkle with salt and paprika. You can also eat the larvae raw if you aren't squeamish. In the woods, try gathering wild honeybee larvae as well as the larvae and pupae of wasps, and bumblebees. Of course, there is the occupational hazard of trying to harvest unwilling bees loaded with stingers. The adults can be boiled and added to soups and stews.

Ants
Try adding dried and roasted ants as a topping to salads and other meat dishes. The formic acid they contains can sometimes add a nice whang to the dish.

Grasshoppers, Crickets, Katydids, and Locusts
These are by far my favorite insects to eat. They can be eaten fried, roasted on hot rocks, ground and made into soup, and sprinkled over other dishes. Simply remove the distal portions of the legs, the wings and with grasshopper and locusts, carefully pull of the head to remove the entrails. On cool mornings you can catch great quantities of sluggish grasshoppers, and katydids. Don't eat raw grasshoppers and katydids as they can carry nematodes which are perfectly happy to take on a human host.

Earthworms
Have you ever fiddled earthworms or used black walnut hulls to force them to the surface? You might be surprised at how many you can harvest with these two methods. Take earthworms, let them purge their alimentary canals of waste materials for a day and then dry, grind and add as an extra to any other food you have cooking on the campfire for a nice protein rich addition. Earthworms also make a very nice smooth pate.

Snails
I absolutely love to eat snails which have been sauteed in wine, garlic and butter. In many areas during moist warm weather you can gather large quantities of these slow moving mollusks. Purge for 24 hours, and cook as mentioned above. You can stuff them back in the shell or simply eat as is. There are few regular foods which are such a taste treat.

The insects listed above are only a few of the countless you can experiment with as culinary additions to your diet. You are only limited by your willingness to set aside culture preconceptions about eating insects. Open your mind and your mouth, and experience what you might be surprised to find you enjoy and, munch away. Pound for pound insects offer us an option when trying to find a ready source of
protein on survival outings or, simply as creative alternatives to our hum drum everyday diets.

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darryl@thesouthernherbalist.com