Anyone for maggots a la Japonais?

by Sumiko Oshima

However disgusting it may seem, eating bugs is deeply rooted in many cultural traditions. In Southeast Asian and African countries, live insects are sold at markets along with vegetables and meat. At movie theaters in Asia and Africa, people munch roasted insects like they would popcorn. In China, some insects have long been used for medicinal purposes.

Japan also has a tradition of insect cuisine, most famously in Nagano Prefecture. However, literature records insects such as locusts, wasp larvae and silkworm pupae being eaten in many other parts of the country, including Tokyo.

For Akifumi Hayashi, an entomologist and part-time instructor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, though, insects have been on the menu now for several years. For the book “Mushi no Aji (The Taste of Insects),” which Hayashi co-authored with assistant professor Satoshi Shinonaga, the scientists sampled such delicacies as green caterpillar juice, rice and larvae gruel and butter-fried bagworm. They didn’t do this for fun, but for the good of consumers who worry about accidentally eating insects in food.

“There should be no harm in eating almost all insects, but there has been little scientific research to show this and convince consumers,” Hayashi said.

Among all the insects Hayashi has tried, he’s in no doubt that the most delicious are wasp larvae. Hardly surprising, then, that these protein-rich pellets are to this day consumed in many parts of Japan, cooked in various ways — grilled with salt, batter fried, boiled like a tsukudani (in soy sauce and sugar) and also as mazegohan, boiled with rice. With the nutritional value of meat, Shinonaga recommends eating batter-fried wasp larvae when they are available fresh. “They are really crispy and nice when the cooked surface, basted with soy sauce, is slightly charred.”

As appetizing as this might sound, though, don’t be tempted to knock down a wasp nest to load up on larvae; as we’re not built like bears, the consequences could be painful or even fatal. An easier substitute to acquire are fly larvae. “They taste almost the same as wasp larvae,” Shinonaga said, reassuringly.

Hated by rice farmers and commonly culled as pests in autumn, locusts are the most common edible insect in Japan. The insects are cooked as tsukudani. Shinonaga says that sun-dried locusts are the most tasty when cooked as kara-age. His recipe: Leave the insects alive in a bag overnight to empty their digestive tracts. Then boil them before sun-drying. After they are dry, deep-fry them in fresh oil and sprinkle on salt. “It’s delicious when served with sake,” Hayashi writes. Dried locusts can also be stored like dried mushrooms or bonito.

Hayashi said he understands why people might cringe at the thought of tucking into fried wasp larvae or locusts. Although almost all familiar insects these days are regarded as pests, he claims that by avoiding insect cuisine people are missing a five-star food opportunity.

Not only that, he notes, “Eating insects is the best pest control. If everybody ate maggots and fall webworms, they would soon vanish.”

Bon appetit

Mushi on the menu

Other insects sampled by the two intrepid researchers have included:

Cockroach: Hayashi ate a cockroach raw with ponzu (citrus soy sauce). Minus head, wings, legs and digestive organs, it looks like a stomatopod, which is eaten as sushi. “The hard texture is not bad, but a strong aftertaste remains in the mouth,” Hayashi reported. The aroma of grilled cockroach is similar to shrimp, and its crispiness resembles locust, he added.

Mealworms: Sold in pet shops as bird feed, mealworms are the most accessible insects for urban insect-eaters. Web sites on edible insects suggest various mealworm dishes, such as mealworm chocolate-chip cookies and mealworm stir-fry. To enhance their flavor, one Web site recommends feeding mealworms fresh grain for a few days before cooking, as they might have been fed with newspapers or sawdust at pet shops.

Aquatic insect larvae: Larvae living in rivers, such as those of the caddis fly, are famous as a local food in Nagano. They are usually eaten as tsukudani, but are much better when butter-fried if the insect is fresh.

Fall webworms: Exotic insects brought with the U.S. military after the war, fall webworms are hated by gardeners because of their appetite for tree leaves and plants. Hayashi took the insects’ larvae and deep-fried them when they became pupae. “The taste was fabulous,” he declared. “Perhaps it is because, as pupae, they store nutrients to pass the winter.”

Midges (blood worm): Larvae are available at pet shops as fish feed. The label says the insects contain more than 56 percent protein, which is far higher than meat. Hayashi recommends using them as furikake, a condiment sprinkled over rice. To prepare, boil the midges and dry them in the shade, then lightly fry in a pan and season with soy sauce.