Last week, we introduced you to the idea of eating the gentle arachnid giants known as tarantulas. Yes, they're probably just as afraid of us as we are of them, but they boast eight horrifying hairy legs and a perhaps undeserved reputation for being harbingers of death.
Not exactly like frying up a soft-shelled crab—even though it's essentially no different.
But ants are another story. Intelligent, hive-minded, hard-working ants cause little more than a nuisance to most of us in the West. And they can certainly be delicious, too.
Evolution has provided the Earth with a multiplicity of ant species, however—all with their own subtleties and terroir, if you will. And if you're talking about fire ants, add terror to that, too.
For the fourth installment of Cooking with Bugs series, we turned again to insect-cooking expert David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and chef-de-cuisine at the annual Explorers' Club dinner in New York. (He previously instructed us on cooking crickets and grasshoppers, scorpions, and those aforementioned arachnids.) In this edition, we ask him for advice on how to become human anteaters.
So, ants are a little less terrifying than scorpions or tarantulas. How do you like to cook them? For the Explorers Club, I was making a dish—I just love the title my wife came up with for it: "Ants on a Log." If you're feeding little kids, you take celery stalks and fill them with peanut butter and put raisins on top and call it "Ants on a Log," but for the Explorer's Club event, the ants were actual ants.
Instead of using peanut butter I used marzipan instead. The dried ants were harvested in China, where they believe ants are medicine. You can actually buy canisters of black ants there, so they're are easy to acquire in large quantities if you're in China or know someone who is.
How would you describe the taste of ants? There is a chef here in New York, and she is originally from the Basque region. She always talks about how they're very acidic and are kind of grape-like in texture or taste.
They have a very unusual taste. The ones I get from China, they have almost a soy sauce scent to them. It's a very complex flavor that's not easy to describe, except that I really like them.
There is a restaurant here in the East Village that is actually serving them—an Amazonian one, I believe. I can't remember what exactly the type they use—they talk a little bit about seasonality with them, sort of like the way we talk about flavor profiles.
Sure, different species must have variations in flavor. One thing about ants is that most of them have varying degrees of ascorbic acid in them.I'm always meeting people who went on jungle treks in Ecuador; at some point, their guide stops and has them eat ants, and the ants taste like lime. So it's like a citrus flavor.
Here's another fun fact about edible insects that I didn't know until I started researching them. We are always combating what we call carpenter ants, right? And I'd always thought they're called carpenter ants because of what they eat. Well, it turns out that in New England in the 1700s, carpenters would eat those ants because they thought they were warding off scurvy—they thought they were getting citric acid. So it's a lemony kind of flavor, which they get from ascorbic acid. It kind of reminds me a little bit of wild sumac.
With that in mind, what's the best way to prepare ants? Well, if you're actually harvesting your own ants, you can use a Dustbuster or little shop vac and vacuum them up, and that way you don't get bit to heck trying to do it. You can then take that material and freeze it and from there you can sort out the pine needles or whatever else came in there with them. Ultimately what you want to do is spread them on the cookie sheet on very low heat and dry them, at like 225 degrees Fahrenheit.
At this year's Explorer's Club dinner, I used two different kinds of ants: black ants from the Chiangbai region of China, and queen weaver ants from Thailand.
How do they taste in comparison to other ant species? Actually, they're fattier. It's funny—people always do the same thing with termites. When termite queens are flying out in the tropics, locals set up these sheets. When the insects hit the sheet, it knocks off their wings and they fall into a bucket. Then you have a bucket full of termites, which have a mild, bacon-like flavor. They're very fatty.
Wow. What about fire ants? I would think fire ants would be good to harvest if you could do it without jeopardizing yourself. I suspect that if you bake them, it would break down a lot of that venom. But I've never tried them, so I can't speak with great authority on that.
Not many people would want to deal with a bunch of live, angry fire ants. I was recently in New Mexico doing a culinary program, and my contact there said that people previously didn't have problems with fire ants when there are lots of armadillos around, because armadillos eat them. But people are going out of their way to eliminate armadillos because they can cause destruction to gardens. And now they have big problems with fire ants.
Good to know: When keeping fire ants at home, always have a backup armadillo at hand. Thanks, David!