What Do Insects Taste Like?
Plenty has been written about why we should be eating insects: they're a remarkable source of protein—one that wastes less water and produces fewer greenhouse gases than meat—and some have identified them as a possible solution to poor nutrition and cycles of poverty.
For the most part, the way we talk about insects as food focuses on the realities of climate change, population explosion and global economic inequality. But insects aren’t just a good-for-the-world protein source—they can also be delicious.
This has been a guiding principle for the Nordic Food Lab, a gastronomic think tank from the founders of Noma, which just wrapped up a multi-year study of edible insects and their flavor profiles. The result is an unprecedented collection of reports and papers on what insects actually taste like, culminating with the book On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes (out now from Phaidon).
Of course, most cuisines have incorporated insects to various degrees since long before this type of research began. From inago no tsukudani, the savory-sweet boiled locusts traditional in Nagano and the mountains of Japan, to casu marzu, the specialty Sardinian cheese flavored by the digestive secretions of fly larvae, consuming insects for flavor and protein is nothing new.
There remains, however, a stigma in parts of the Western world that many chefs have identified as their latest challenge—think Latin American stars like Enrique Olvera and Alex Atala, who are bringing their countries’ insect ingredients (Mexican Sal de Gusano, for example, and leaf-cutter ants from the Brazilian Amazon) into the fine-dining sphere. The Nordic Food Lab team hopes their research will help supplement this trend, turning the focus from insects as a utilitarian food source to a versatile, underutilized ingredient in their own right. Here's a taste of their tasting notes.
Reprinted with permission from On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes by Nordic Food Lab, Joshua Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst (Phaidon 2017).
Red wood ant (Copenhagen, Denmark; Steigen, Norway)—intensely sour, lemon, caramelized lemon rind (best used raw/frozen)
Cheese fly (Seneghe, Sardinia)—eaten in casu marzu, the cheese the flies form: spicy, strong, blue cheese, wild mountain herbs
Palm-weevil larva (Kalangala Island, Uganda)—fatty, tender, crispy bits of cooked fat, cheesy, white pepepr (fried in own fat)
Bee brood (Copenhagen and Livø, Denmark)—umami, fat, slightly sweet, raw nuts, avocado, honeydew melon, green, herbaceous, milk, smooth (raw/fresh/blanched); umami, crispy, bacon, mushroom (fried/roasted)
Giant water bug (Livø, Denmark; from Southeast Asia)—intensely aromatic, tropical fruits, citrus, watermelon candy)
Giant cricket, tobacco cricket (Lukindu, Uganda)—chicken (thigh), fat, umami, juicy, lamb's brain (head), mild, creamy, sweet (abdomen)
Katydid (Kiboobi, Uganda)—crisp, springy, savoury, shrimp minus the sea (fried/fresh)
Termite (Chebarsiat, Elnuni, Epanga Valley, Rusinga Island, Bondo, Majiwa, Kakamega and Onyurnyur, Kenya; Banda Kyandazz, Uganda)—crunchy, nutty, fatty, savoury (soldiers/alates, toasted); fatty, soft, springy, sweetbreads, foie gras (queen, fried in own fat)
Honey ant (Yuendumu, NT, Australia)—sweet, sour, tingly/numbing, dark honey, sun-dried wild strawberries (raw/live)
Witchetty grub (Yuendumu, NT, Australia)—nutty, macadamia nut, confit garlic, roasted red pepper, romesco sauce (cooked lightly in eucalyptus ahses of fire)
Japanese wasp (Kushihara, Gifu, Japan)—umami, forest, oak moss
Giant hornet (Kushihara, Gifu, Japan)—strong, meaty, chewy, animal, pungent
Cherry caterpillar (Tokyo, Japan)—the smell of the frass: cherry leaf, cherry blossom, cherry stone, bitter almond
Lychee stink bug (Bangkok, Thailand)—kaffir lime, coriander, apple skin with sweet notes of banana and tropical fruits
Common house cricket (Baan Saento, Thailand)—slightly fishy, walnut (fried with pandan leaves)
On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes by Nordic Food Lab, Joshua Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst, $60 at phaidon.com.