I am a fairly fearless eater. I’ve dined on boiled goose blood and fish bladders in Hong Kong, llama pate in Chile, and fermented whale meat on the Faroe Islands — although I draw the line at Greenland’s seal-and-blubber soup. Upon hearing that the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo had recently started offering insect snacks at the Mandarin Bar, I immediately wanted to taste them.
Cooking with bugs is a fairly recent fad among top fine-dining restaurants around the world. In 2012, U.S. chef Jose Andres made headlines for introducing grasshopper tacos at his Washington, D.C. restaurant Oyamel, while Brazilian chef Alex Atala popularized the trend by topping dishes with Amazonian ants that taste of lemongrass at D.O.M. in Sao Paolo. In Copenhagen, Noma’s Rene Redzepi regularly dispatches foragers to collect the citrusy wood ants he uses to garnish steak tartare. More recently, Tokyo chef Zaiyu Hasegawa of Jimbocho Den has adopted the idea by crowning his signature garden salad with a single ant from Chiba Prefecture.
Noma, says food and beverage director Thomas Combescot-Lepere, was the original inspiration behind the Mandarin Oriental’s unusual new bar snacks (this January, the Danish restaurant will relocate to Tokyo temporarily for a six-week residency at the hotel’s French restaurant Signature, and ants will likely appear on the menu). However, Japan has a long history of consuming arthropods — particularly in the mountainous regions of central and northeastern Japan. One of the most famous edible-insect-producing prefectures is Nagano, where grasshoppers and zazamushi (stonefly larvae) are prized as delicacies.
“We have a program where we celebrate a different prefecture every season, and Nagano was the first one. When our chef reminded me that they have a strong culture of eating insects, I said, ‘Let’s do it at the Mandarin Bar,’ ” Combescot-Lepere says.
The snacks are sourced from Tsukahara Shinshu Chinmi, a specialty shop in Ina, Nagano Prefecture, where they farm the insects and then cook them in the traditional way: long-simmered in a sweet mix of soy sauce, sake and sugar. Executive sous chef Tadahiro Takagi says that the hotel doesn’t prepare the dishes on-site because of the difficulties involved in transporting the live specimens and then caring for them (the animals must be purged for days before cooking). So far, the items have been a hit with both Japanese and non-Japanese customers.
“Every day, some guests request the insect snacks,” Takagi says. “They’re good with sake and shochu.”
The insects — a trio of bee larvae, grasshoppers, and fat silkworm larvae — were served in dainty ceramic dishes. Takagi had warned that the silkworms were the “most challenging,” so I started with the bee larvae, which had a mild flavor and a chewy texture. The silkworms were indeed challenging — earthy and vegetal, like pungent pumpkin seeds. The glazed grasshoppers, however, were delicious, with a satisfying crunch and an intensely sweet, raisin-like flavor that proved to be a compelling match for a glass of 1999 Suntory Owner’s Cask Hakushu whisky. Much to everyone’s surprise, I ordered seconds.
The Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is located at 2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 103-8328; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.; 03-3270-8188. Melinda Joe blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.