A pan of sizzling olive oil over a medium low fire, half of a red pepper sliced into quarters, half of a green pepper sliced into quarters, half an onion chopped, eight ounces of guacamole, two small corn tortillas and a handful of crunchy, roasted crickets – so reads the recipe for a “Chapulines [Spanish name for cricket] Taco” at the Toloache Diner on 251 West 50th Street.
Cooking insects, or entomophagy, could become the next big food trend in New York City, if partisans have their way.
“Farming insects as miniature livestock is a smarter, more efficient and ultimately environmentally safer means of sustaining a healthy and convenient food supply. Insects reproduce at a much quicker rate than cattle,” says Marc Dennis, amateur chef and creator of the Insects Are Food website and initiative. “They are much easier to raise, need far less living space and are able to feed off of much less feed than traditional livestock.”
At Toloache, manager Luis Flores often snacks on a bowl of roasted crickets throughout the afternoon. “They are delicious and nutritious,” he says. “But, you have to try it [Chapulines Taco] at least twice before you get keen on it – sometimes you can feel little thorns in your mouth because of the little legs. It can be strange but if you stop thinking about it, you notice the taco is really delicious and you start enjoying it; salty, acidic and creamy because of the avocado.”
Flores says that crickets are a common delicacy in his hometown of Mohaca, in Mexico. “Everyone loves them. It is a family ritual to have cricket tacos.”
For Dennis, “[dry roasted] Crickets for the most part taste like raw roasted pumpkin seeds.” That said, Dennis knows that taste is a matter of personal opinion, not just because every consumer has different “taste buds” but also because “the ingredients used in each recipe…have the potential to influence and enhance the taste of the insect,” he says.
Getting ready to order at a table in the back of the restaurant, New York resident Jonathan Allen agrees with Flores. “I enjoy the taco, it’s crunchy and refreshing,” He said. His wife Karen does not share her husband’s bug-eating enthusiasm. “I have never tried the taco,” she admitted shyly.
Whether diners intend to consume them or not, insects are not foreign to the New York diet; Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations allows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “to establish maximum levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard.” Practically speaking, this means that the government accepts the possibility of up to 60 insect fragments in 100 grams of all popular chocolates, ten larvae eggs in 250 milliliters of citrus juice, or up to three whole larvae in an eight ounce can of tomatoes. “It is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects” the FDA concludes.
“The office of Food has been elevated and modernized to deal with the future of food” says Michael R. Taylor – who was named deputy commissioner for foods in 2010 – during an online instruction video available at fda.gov. Taylor’s appointment was followed by a re structuring of FDA regulations and legal reach that gives the administration legal authority to act prior to contamination or food hazards where it deems necessary. “This is a process based on common sense” says Taylor, “but it is a huge shift from the FDA’s prior role of reacting to leading and holding companies accountable for prevention” Taylor claims.
Despite the above, the FDA failed to comment on its lack of regulations directly concerning the practice of entomophagy.
Given the lack of more concise regulation, Dennis interprets Title 21 as an “abstract endorsement” of bug cuisine. “I have never run into problems with the FDA. There would be no reason for such an issue,” he says. “I do not sell insects for consumption publicly. I invite people into my home to eat the bugs. It’s not the FDA’s business what I do in my own home.”
What about Toloache’s practices? In theory, FDA regulations could raise health and safety issues at the public sale of insects directly intended for consumption. Flores however is quick and vehement to dismiss the idea and claims that his restaurant has never been inspected nor sanctioned by any safety regulator, “all our crickets arrive from Mexico disinfected, pre processed and dried,” Flores says – albeit refusing to specify on source and import details – “We have never had any problems with customs or the FDA,” he adds.
So, exactly how “safe” is it to ingest insects? Nutritionally speaking, Dennis argues that insects are both richer and leaner than traditional protein. “100 grams of cricket contains 121 calories, 12.9 grams of protein, 5.5 grams of fat, 5.1 grams of carbohydrates, 75.8 milligrams of calcium, 185.3 milligrams of phosphorous, 9.5 milligrams of iron, 0.36 milligrams of thiamin, 1.09 milligrams of riboflavin, 3.10 milligrams of niacin and 0.05 per cent fat” he says. “Although it [beef] contains more protein – about 23.5 g. to be exact – it also has 288.2 calories and an enormous amount of fat… 21.2 grams worth.
“Bugs are safe to eat as long as you purchase them from a reliable source or raise them yourself,” Dennis says. “You do not want to take bugs from the wild because you don’t know what sort of pesticides or other chemical sources they’ve come into contact with.”
As a general rule of thumb, Dennis warns against “eating any brightly colored, hairy or spiny bugs, as they are likely to be poisonous.”
“I remember when sushi was scoffed at and most people really weren’t interested in eating it” he says, “now it is ubiquitous. Eating bugs will very likely become the ‘next sushi” because we will be faced with limited choices as we head into the unknown future of protein consumption.”
Dennis’ favourite insect-centric meal is his own recipe for Wax-worm pancakes. For those savy – and brave – enough, Dennis also offers a number of other insect delicacies such as Meal Worm French Fries or Witchetty Grub (which the chef promises “taste like fried egg with a hint of nut”), on his website.