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Feeling a little peaked? How about a plate laden with grasshoppers or fried silkworm caterpillars? Insects have wiggled their way onto menus in New York City, Denver, and Los Angeles, and now, they’re also what’s for lunch in Chicago restaurants such as Mi Tocaya Antojería, a neighborhood Mexican restaurant opened in 2017 by acclaimed chef, Diana Dávila.
Interest in entomophagy—the eating of insects—is nothing new to the roughly two billion people around the world who incorporate them into their diets. In North America, insects have been used in gastronomy since pre-Hispanic times, and Dávila believes that by adding chapulines, or grasshoppers, to her restaurant’s dishes such as venison with a burnt orange salsa, she is representing her Mexican roots.
“Insects are delicious,” says Dávila. In the same way mezcal helps to maintain a connection to traditions from as far back as the Old World, she believes that eating insects is “also a part of [her] heritage.”
“Insects,” says Robyn Shapiro, founder of Seek Foods, an American company that makes snacks and granola using cricket flour, “are one of the oldest foods eaten. By eating them, you can start interesting conversations about foods from many cultures.”
At Cremería La Ordeña, a Mexican grocery and imported foods shop, customers not only can purchase homemade chorizo, mole, and Oaxacan cheese, but they can also try a few roasted and lime and salt seasoned chapulines on the house.
Edible insects are even finding their way into the fine dining circuit. Celebrity chef Rick Bayless, who is known as much for receiving a Michelin star (Topolobampo) as he is for his PBS series, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, enjoys sipping on mezcal with a little sal de gusano: a spicy combination of chili-salt and ground maguey, or agave worms. At his restaurant, Leña Brava, diners can order avocado laminados (sashimi-thin slices of vegetables or fish) topped with—among other ingredients such as citrus, toasted pumpkin seeds, and red onion—chapulines.
In addition to being a delicious way to connect to gastronomic cultural traditions from around the planet, dining on insects is also just plain smart eating. In 2013, a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shared that by 2050, the world’s population will rise to nine billion. This means that to feed us all, we will need to almost double our food production. If this seems a daunting feat, then it’s worth considering that insects, which are a highly nutritious alternative to beef, chicken, and other meat, are also a sustainable food option. Crickets, for example, require 12 times less feed than beef, and no land-clearing is required to start a cricket farm.
People living in 80 percent of countries eat insects, but nowhere is the practice more common than the Asia Pacific region. Chicago’s Four Belly Ramen and Sushi, which serves Asian street food, offers fried silkworm caterpillars with Thai herbs, salt, and pepper. Crunchy on the outside with a paste-like center, the taste is sweet, nutty, and earthy. It’s definitely a dining experience worth its five-dollar price point.
Despite the rising popularity of edible insects, some once bug-friendly Chicago restaurants have, in recent years, removed insects from their menus. Thai restaurant Sticky Rice, for example, once served dishes containing bamboo caterpillars and ant eggs, and Mexican restaurant Las Fuentes served chapulines. Whether insects were removed due to a lack of demand, difficulty sourcing the ingredients, or some other change in the direction of the restaurants, is hard to say, as by time of press, the restaurants hadn’t commented. As the interest for edible insects in Chicago grows, one wonders if the owners will soon feel inspired to reintroduce insects to their menu.
Although adventurous Chicagoans may have already tried eating edible insects, Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds (a nonprofit promoting the eating of insects), says that general consumers might also want to consider giving them a shot.
“Eating insects isn’t a gimmick,” says Allen. “They’re not trendy like kale or quinoa, but there are thousands of insects for restaurants to try.” Indeed, because each insect offers its own complex texture, flavor profile, and unique culinary and cultural history, innovative menu developers would be remiss not to consider adding at least one insect to their protein offerings.
Okay, but what about people who are feeling a certain ick factor? Allen laughs. “I think we’re starting to move away from [associating insect-eating with] “Fear Factor” and concentrating on health benefits and deliciousness.”
Dávila adds, “people just don’t have a connection [to insects]. They should think about farming culture—if they ever saw chickens being raised, or pork—how those animals are raised is disgusting. But insects, really?”
More than anything, Dávila says, “people just need to be open [to trying new things]. Insects are a part of what makes [my food] so beautiful and delicious.”
Melissa Banigan is a freelance journalist and photographer with work in The Washington Post, NPR, and BBC Travel, among many others, with a particular interests in foods of the future, travel, ethical investing, and science. She's also the Founder and CEO of Advice Project Media, a nonprofit that offers media, writing, and travel services for youth and women around the world.