It’s the middle of the weekend brunch rush at the Black Ant, an East Village restaurant that peppers its Mexican menu with a handful of palatably disguised insect offerings, including grasshopper croquettes and guacamole seasoned with ant salt. In the kitchen, Francisco Hidalgo, the chef de cuisine, is tasting garums — traditionally, fermented Roman fish sauces — that have been made with insects instead of the usual fish guts. “Cool, super cool,” he says, taking a whiff. After trying a few options, he decides to combine some grasshopper garum, his favorite, with elderflower syrup to make an umami-rich vinaigrette for salads.
“Ah, the grasshopper — that was the original,” says Josh Evans, co-author of the book On Eating Insects, which will be published next month. He brought three apothecary-style bottles of garums along as a gift for the chef, and agrees that grasshopper is one of the tastiest. In his professional capacity as bug cook, he’s tried the method with many different insects, to varying degrees of success. “Cockroach garum really tasted like cleaning liquid,” he sighs.
For three years, he and a team of other researchers worked at the Nordic Food Lab, founded by René Redzepi in Copenhagen, to uncover the ins and outs of bug eating. On Eating Insects — a beautifully produced work that is equal parts coffee-table book, recipe guide, and anthropological exploration — is the result of those bug-filled adventures. It features stark, Nordic-inspired design, stunning photographs, and recipes for things like bee-larvae ceviche and ants on a log (hold the raisins).
Joining Evans on this trip to New York is Andreas Johnsen, a documentary filmmaker who followed Evans and his colleagues around the world to make Bugs. (Also along for the trip is Johnsen’s 9-year-old son, Midas.) The film traces the team around the world, to Thailand and Kenya, where the insect-seekers hack through termite mounds in search of a plump, thumb-size queen; to Australia and Italy, where a cheese-maker introduces everyone to casu marzu, a white cheese intentionally infected with live maggots; to Japan to hunt a deadly wasp that, when fried whole, shatters in the mouth; and back to Copenhagen where the team documents discoveries and gets to work in the kitchen, cooking dishes like chicken crumbed in buffalo worms, dung-beetle grub stew, and a mousseline of wax-moth larvae. The film features the kind of high production value you’d expect in any other food documentary — an extended episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, shot after the world’s food systems have been wiped out. (At a screening held earlier in the day, both popcorn and crickets were offered; Midas opted for the popcorn.)
Though it’s unclear who, precisely, the audience will be for a $59.99 book about eating creepy-crawlies, Evans, Johnsen, and everyone involved in the projects are extremely serious about the need for Western cultures to embrace the idea of insect cuisine. Evans — tall, gangly, with an appealing nerdiness and a penchant for saying things like, “if I had to choose an allegiance to a group organism, it’d have to be microorganisms” — says he “sort of fell into bugs” at the lab, after majoring in humanities at Yale, but is now a firm believer in the power of entomophagy.
It’s estimated that over 2 billion people in the world consume insects. Not most Westerners, a problem highlighted in a 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, “Edible Insects,” which states that the world population will reach 9 billion by 2050. We’ll need almost double the current amount of food production to handle the projected increase. According to some cricket experts, the insects are 20 times as efficient a source of protein as a cow, and in this age of Paleo-everything, it’s abundantly clear that insects are ecologically and environmentally sound.
For Redzepi, the chef and owner of Noma, it wasn’t just a question of fuel and ecology. After his chef buddy, Alex Atala, of Rio’s D.O.M. restaurant, offered him an Amazonian ant “that tasted like the best lemongrass you could ever imagine,” as Redzepi writes in the book’s foreword, he became interested in the culinary application of insects. The lab’s endeavor was thus multipronged: to answer the guiding question, “Why don’t we eat insects in the Western world?”; to uncover where and how different populations consume insects; and then, finally, to figure out how to make bugs taste delicious. That might just be the key to overriding many Westerners’ gut reaction of disgust — and is a shrimp really anything more than an ocean-dwelling beetle?
In the book’s introduction, Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, points out one other benefit to grasshopper garums and the like: “To eat a novel food — especially one that elicits initial fear or disgust — is the essence of eating mindfully.” Only a select few would scoop up a spoonful of worm larvae while zoning out to an episode of Billions.
“Insects are worth studying and tasting because of this general idea about the power of food diversity,” Evans explains. But he cautions that any shift must also be handled responsibly, and that there is no one silver bullet to ending world hunger. Take, for example, soybeans, which were once spoken about in the same laudatory terms as crickets — they were cheap, easy to produce, easy to ship, and full of protein. Now, more than 4 million hectares of forest in South America are destroyed for soy production, and at least 80 percent of the beans are used to feed industrially raised animals. That does not a good food system make, and Evans wants to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with grasshoppers or ants. “The primary concern to remember is that it isn’t the actual organism,” he says, “it’s the system we build around it.”
Back at the Black Ant, as Midas scrolls through an iPhone in search of a nearby toy store, Evans notices a bowl of “toritos” — little bulls — sitting at the chef’s station. “Are these the ones that live on the avocado tree?” he asks, excitedly. “I don’t think so — I get them from Mexico,” replies Hidalgo, before getting back to work. He layers wahoo ceviche onto a plate with lychee emulsion, radishes, yuzu, nasturtium flowers, and a few grasshoppers on top. After arranging four croquettes in a bowl — each made with a yucca-manchego-ground grasshopper dough — he picks his way through the bowl of grasshoppers to find ones to place on top as garnish, bypassing a particularly large sucker, the size of his thumb, which he feels would be a hard sell. “People who come here, they don’t necessarily want to eat the insects,” Hidalgo says. “It’s more of an attraction. They like to Instagram.”
Evans and Johnsen head out to their table to join other diners and try some of the chef’s creations, and find Midas slumped in a banquette, sneakers kicked off, mournfully sipping a coke. He’s developed a sudden onset stomachache.
When their croquettes arrive, Evans inspects the grasshopper garnish, which he estimates to be teenage. In between bites, he speaks animatedly of the learning curve that comes with prepping insects in the kitchen. “With the wings and the legs removed, I learned it’s a lot easier,” he says. “Otherwise, they get stuck in your teeth and stuff.”
Midas silently inches down further in the banquette.
“The bottom line is, it’s not about bugs,” Evans explains, forking up a bite of ceviche and grasshopper, which he says plays particularly well together, texturally. “It’s just a great way of starting conversations.” Then he dives in for some more croquette, and a chipful of ant salt–seasoned guacamole. Crunch.
Midas slides all the way down until his back is fully flat, closes his eyes, and lies very still, the brunch crowd buzzing around him.