Eighty percent of the world’s nations eat insects. That’s an estimated 1.9 billion people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
And in lab studies, insects have shown themselves to be rich in protein, roughly equivalent, pound for pound, to lean ground beef.
Insects are chock-full of vitamins and minerals. Insects are also abundant: there are more than 350,00 species of beetles alone. In addition, they are much more environmentally friendly to raise than either cattle or pigs.
So why doesn’t everyone eat bugs?
Vincent M. Holt asked that very question more than a hundred years ago. As an Englishman, Holt was undoubtedly moved after a series of crop failures and subsequent food shortages ravaged Ireland. Published in 1885, his persuasive book Why Not Eat Insects? argued that people would be better off if they stopped dining on beef, chicken, pork, and fish. Instead, they could be well fed on a diet of beetles, wasps, and caterpillars.
“People,” Holt wrote, “will enjoy oysters and cockles, while they abominate snails; they will make themselves ill with indigestible and foul-feeding lobsters while they look with horror upon pretty, clean-feeding caterpillars.”
Add Insects to Your Meal
Today, faced with the threat of global famine from climate change and rapid population growth many—myself included—have taken up Holt’s campaign, urging their countrymen to embrace entomophagy, or bug-eating, as a planet-saving alternative to consuming more conventional sources of protein.
In recent months, I’ve witnessed an explosion of interest in edible insects, especially among foodies, foragers, and college students. Several insect cookbooks have been published, including the revised edition of my book, The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, published by Ten Speed Press and originally printed in 1998. A handful of bug start-ups have also emerged—businesses like World Entomophagy, Don Bugito, and Chapul, to name a few. Restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., have also added crickets or grasshoppers to their menus.
So why isn’t everyone in the Western world eating bugs? It’s likely that our unwillingness to eat bugs stems from our shared dislike for these critters.
Most people view insects as gross, disease carriers and mini-menaces to our agricultural efforts. But when you factor in our own species’ reluctance to try new and unusual foods, it’s obvious that old Holt and I have a real sell job on our hands.
Still, for those seeking to reduce their impacts on the planet and to ride the crest of a new culinary wave, there’s no better time than the present to add edible insects to their meal plans.
How to Cook Bugs and Save the Planet
Begin with a trip to the nearest pet store or bait and tackle shop. Here, you can purchase a few dozen live crickets. If you’re offered the choice, buy the medium-size crickets; they haven’t sprouted their wings yet, making them less crunchy than the adults.
Put the crickets in a Ziploc bag and toss them into a freezer—a humane way to kill these cold-blooded animals. Once frozen, the crickets can be defrosted, rinsed with cold water, and incorporated into a number of easy-to-prepare dishes.
Try this one first: Spread the rinsed and defrosted critters on a cookie sheet, baking them at low heat, around 225ºF, for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and season with salt or a spice blend. If legs and antennae are a turnoff, put the oven-baked crickets into a paper bag. By vigorously shaking the bag, you can break off and later discard these appendages.
The rinsed and defrosted crickets can also be combined with other ingredients in a wok. My recipe for orthopteran orzo, a dish featuring stir-fried crickets, diced green and red peppers, some onion, grated carrot, and orzo pasta, is especially flavorful and can be made in minutes.
If cooking with the larger adult crickets, consider putting them on skewers, marinating in teriyaki sauce, and broiling for a minute or two (the mere thought of this is making me hungry). You can also add crickets, along with Toll House morsels to cookie dough, making your own chocolate chirp cookies.
So break open a bag of beetles, munch on some mealy worms, and snack on a few scorpions. The following recipes are high in protein and environmentally friendly—and they just might help end world hunger.
Orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, gets its name from the Italian word for barley, but we all know that orzo looks exactly like juvenile bugs. Needless to say, it’s a perfect complement for crickets, especially three- or four-week-old nymphs, which are of a comparable size. At this stage in life the young crickets lack wings and ovipositors, the chitinous tubes through which the adult females pass their eggs. Their limbs are skinny, so there’s no need to remove them before cooking. Likewise for the antennae, which, at less than a quarter of an inch, should pose no obstacle to enjoying this meal.
3 cups vegetable broth
1 cup orzo
1/2 cup grated carrot
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup finely diced green bell pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup frozen two- or three-week-old cricket nymphs, thawed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Bring the broth to a boil, then stir in the orzo.
2. Continue boiling the orzo until it is tender, about 10 minutes; drain any extra liquid, then quickly add the carrot and red and green peppers. Mix evenly and set aside.
3. In a separate skillet, melt the butter and add the garlic, onion, and crickets. Sauté briefly until the onions are translucent and the garlic and crickets have browned.
4. Combine the cricket mixture, including any liquid, with the orzo and vegetables, top with the parsley, and serve.
Yield: 6 servings
2 cups low-fat milk
8 frozen desert hairy scorpions or a similar species, thawed, venom gland removed
1 cup white cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1. Pour the milk into a medium bowl. Add the scorpions to the bowl and set aside while preparing the rest of the ingredients. Spread the cornmeal on a plate and set aside.
2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over high heat. Working with one scorpion at a time, remove it from the milk, allowing the excess to drain off. Dredge the scorpions through the cornmeal, shaking off any excess.
3. Place the scorpions in the hot butter and cook until they are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Then turn the scorpions over and cook until done, about 1 minute more.
4. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with lemon juice and chopped parsley and serve.
Yield: 6 servings
White Chocolate Wax Worm Cookies
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 cups white chocolate chunks or morsels
3/4 cup (about 375) frozen wax worms, thawed
Wax Worm Cookies
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter, brown and granulated sugars, and vanilla extract until creamy.
3. Stir the egg into the butter mixture, then gradually beat in the flour mixture. Stir in the white chocolate chunks and half of the wax worms, reserving the rest for garnishing the cookies.
4. Drop the batter by rounded teaspoonfuls onto nonstick baking sheets.
5. Gently press 2 or 3 of the remaining wax worms into the top of each cookie.
6. Bake until the edges of each cookie are lightly browned, 8 to 12 minutes.
7. Let cookies cool on the baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies
Georgia’s Public Liberal Arts University has more insect recipes, including grasshopper gumbo.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.