The next time you consider complaining to your waiter about a fly in your soup, consider the futility of that exercise. Insects are everywhere, and there is no way around eating them. Acknowledging this, the FDA maintains a list of Commodities and Defects Action Levels, which spells out just how much insect contamination is allowed in most every type of food. Frozen broccoli is permitted up to 60 whole aphids per hundred grams, while curry powder can contain 100 insect fragments in each 25 grams. Sorry, vegans, you are most certainly crunching down on exoskeleton or through soft aphid flesh among your leafy greens. So you might as well try to enjoy the extra protein. With an estimated 2 billion people worldwide regularly eating insects, you won't be alone.
I've been an on-again off-again bug eater since my summer camp days, when we ran about in loincloths and ate roasted grasshoppers off the fire. They tasted vaguely like popcorn, and I had yet to understand how good they could be with beer.
In college, I frequented an event called Eat Bugs for Money, which took place each May during the annual year-end bash. I never participated as a consumer, having learned at an early age to prefer my bugs cooked-not to mention dead. Nonetheless, I basked in the inebriated mob's communal energy as we cheered the bidding wars that would determine which person was to eat which bug for the least amount of financial compensation. Together, we chanted, "eat the bug!"
This approach to entymophagy, as bug eating is officially called, is mirrored in television shows like "Fear Factor" and "Survivor," where a person's disgust at the eating of bugs is leveraged against some kind of prize for overcoming it, all for the viewer's perverse enjoyment.
But in many parts of the world, eating bugs is its own reward. In Japan, people open their wallets for aquatic larvae called zazamushi, while a plate of Mexican maguey worms can set you back quite a few pesos.
One night in Bangkok, Thailand, in front of a steamy bar, I ate from a cart of crispy bugs, which paired exceptionally well with cold beer. The bug-eating camaraderie was strong in that curbside session.
In recent years, many have argued for widespread insect consumption as a way of providing cheap protein with a much smaller environmental footprint than that of meat. Insects are nutritional powerhouses, packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, fat and trace minerals like zinc. Bugs, on average, are about ten times more efficient than beef at converting feed into human food, and many of the world's hunger and environmental problems could be solved if we would just eat them. But alas, many of us don't care to.
The revulsion that's commonly felt at eating bugs is more cultural than genetic. Still, this aversion can be hard to shake, and is in fact more contagious than the practice of bug eating. The western taboo against entymophagy is spreading to poor countries where insects represent a meaningful source of nutrients for much of the population. In such places, bug shaming can interfere with nutrition.
Bugsolutely, a Thai company, recently sent me a sample of its one and only product, a box of spiral-shaped wheat noodles made with 20 percent cricket flour. Looking at these Italian-style fusilli, the insect fragments were clearly visible. Nonetheless the noodles tasted mild, with nothing weird going on, and had the proper firm, smooth texture, with no crunch unless prepared al dente. The noodles went well with pesto and cheese and other typical pasta companions. The insect content added intrigue.
But it also kind of bugged me that, of all the things that could be done with insects, Bugsolutely chose to replicate European-style noodles. Thailand has a rich culinary tradition that includes the consumption of at least 150 species of insect (almost 2,000 species are eaten worldwide). With that history from which to draw, why hide the crickets in the noodles? As excellent as they were, I found myself wanting something more authentic. Or so I thought.
I found my way to the website of a company called Thailand Unique, where I ogled a jungle of insects, pictured and described in vivid detail. They come in bags and in cans, in powdered or whole forms, flavored and plain, in various life stages. Some of the insects are cultivated, while others are collected wild. The critters are cleaned, pressure cooked (to sterilize them) and dehydrated before being packaged.
I perused the water scorpions and hornet larvae, marveled at worms that have eaten nothing but the cores of young bamboo plants. The nutritional content of each bug was broken down in great detail. For example, not only was the total protein content provided, but the amounts of each amino acid were too. At 55 percent dry weight, silkworms have the highest total protein of all insects – which makes sense given protein is the main component of silk. Dung beetles, whose diet of poop effectively crams two taboos into one bug, are typically served with soy sauce, chili and pepper, or, alternatively, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf.
Shipping to the U.S. from Thailand can be expensive, but Seattle's Marx Foods can ship several members of the Thailand Unique product line. I ordered some bugs. Nothing too crazy, just some ants, silkworm pupae, termites, cricket powder, a couple scorpions, and some bamboo worms. The packages arrived and the family gathered around the table to eat some bugs. The kids were psyched.
But despite our collective will to eat the bugs, when actually faced with the bugs we didn't really want to. I could see eating them if better options were not available. But they are.
I soldiered through the samples. Each had clear, but totally unfamiliar animal flavors, with some very unusual elements. The bamboo worms were a bit cheesy, the silkworms nutty, and the ants bore a hint of lemon. They were all dry and oily. The scorpions are still in the bag.
While fascinating, the feeling just wasn't there. Like someone you want to be friends with but not make out. Perhaps had they been fresher, like on the streets of Bangkok or the campfires of my youth, I would have been more eager. Of course, if the money was right, I would have kept going. Or maybe I just needed beer.
Several efforts are underway to elevate insect cuisine, including a research lab in Copenhagen dedicated to "insect deliciousness," and many restaurants are adding insects to their menus. But for practical purposes, hiding the bugs in noodles and whatnot might be the best way to go.
Luckily, as has been established with products like baloney, even the most disgusting sounding ingredients can be homogenized into palatable form with enough fat, salt or sugar. I think the folks at Bugsolutely are on the right track after all, and noodles are just the bug-inning of what's possible. Cricket protein bars are already on the shelf, and maybe soon they will be joined by bug bagels and bug burgers, not to mention bug baloney. And perhaps some day, the holiest grail of them all, bug bacon.
Missoula food writer Ari LeVaux writes a weekly column for the Foods section. Send ideas to his Twitter account, @arilevaux.