Here at MUNCHIES, we get more bug-driven food pitches every week than the amount of ISIS-related Google alerts at VICE News. We've even run a few stories—from exploring the economic impact of bug-farming in Thailand to addressing the ethics of humane insect slaughter—on the critters that manage to crawl into crevices where even the smallest kitten can't reach.
Sure, it's almost impossible to avoid the deluge of headlines promising that insects are the future's great sustainable protein that will save our planet, if only we could all get past the ick factor. But what if we took the futurist rhetoric out of the equation and simply took insects for what they are—ingredients?
With that in mind, we turned to David George Gordon, a.k.a. "The Bug Chef," a 30-plus-year veteran chef who specializes in deep-frying, de-hydrating, dredging, and slicing up hundreds of species of critters that crawl all over the world and into your mouth when you're sleeping.
Gordon has published the primer cookbook on insects, The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, and has made himself known for his role at the annual (and typically extravagant) Explorers Club dinner in New York. He estimates that the dinner he helped to throw this past March was "the single largest bug banquet in in the recorded history of the world," featuring $15,000 dollars worth of insects for a thousand people.
We gave Gordon a ring to find out how to cook with five of his favorite bugs: scorpions, tarantulas, chapulines, ants, and wax worms and how to cook with them in the kitchen. We're kicking off this five-part cooking series with scorpions, not only because they're the freshest thing from the pet store, but a land lobster with a little bit of venom to keep you on your toes in the kitchen.
MUNCHIES: Hi, David. So, how do you pull off sourcing these creatures? David George Gordon: I've spent the last 17 years or so developing relationships with all sorts of people, from beekeepers to the pest lab at the University of California Riverside. It seems like in recent years, there have been more people raising insects specifically for human consumption. I actually encourage people to go to a pet store and order bugs from there. This isn't a bad thing—at least in terms of bugs that are raised under very strict sanitary conditions and all that. It's nice to know that at places like Hopper Foods in Austin, Texas, there are now people organically raising crickets for people.
Since you were sourcing live bugs for the Explorers' Club dinner, how do you deal with handling them in the kitchen? For most of my programs, I like to get live critters and put them in the freezer. In some cases, I don't even open the box; I just put the whole box in the freezer. That's probably the most humane way to dispatch the bugs because they're basically drifting off into a deep sleep, kind of like a Jack London story. They just don't wake up.
So what's the deal with scorpions? People tend to be visually discerning when they're looking at food. The most common scorpion that's sold in pet stores—the Emperor scorpion—is a very blackish version. And since we don't eat many black-colored things in our food diets, I think this can be challenging for most. I like to cook with hairy desert scorpions, which have little hairs all over them, but they're kind of a golden brown, almost honey color. They look a lot more appetizing.
How do you source them? They seem hard to find. I get scorpions from a supplier near Tucson who collects them from the Sonoran Desert.
They kind of look like lobsters. When I do programs, I bring a rubber lobster in my kit and I point out to people that scorpion meat is the same as lobsters; it's in the claws and the tail. To a lesser degree, the little legs, too. The actual body is not that interesting to consume, although you can certainly get in there and pick out a little bit of meat. The other thing to remember about scorpions is that they live in the desert, so they might go for a month without eating. There is not that much life to find out there. They are very slow digesters, so it's not that unusual that when you're eating their body, you're now eating what it consumed a month ago, like crickets, flies, and other insects that they come across. The best parts are the tails and the claws.
But how do you deal with the venom in the kitchen? And is it safe to consume it? First of all, I take off the stinger and the venom glands so that I'm not dealing with the venom at all. Venom is a protein that causes a very intense allergic reaction when injected. When you cook the protein, it denatures it and breaks it down in the same way you cook an egg: it goes from being this runny thing to being a solid. It changes composition. So let's imagine that I have taken a bunch of frozen scorpions, rinsed them off in a colander, and let them defrost. The first thing I'm going to do is trim off the terminal tail segment (and pitch it in the trash) and then dip them in milk and dress them in cornmeal. Then, all that's left to do is to put them in a hot skillet with a little bit of butter or oil and deep-fry them about a minute on each side. I season them very lightly with salt, pepper, and a little dash of lemon.
But as a chef handling the scorpion, I'd imagine that there are physical hazards if you're not too careful? If you were clumsy, you get could get stung, although I don't think that the venom has to be injected by a muscle contraction. If you got stung, it would be like getting stung by the tip of a sewing needle.
And in terms of handling them, is there any part that you shouldn't use? Is there any part that is hazardous to handle? The only thing I like to remove is with a scorpions because I'm using fairly large ones. After they've been frozen I remove the stinger which is on the very tip of their tale and the venom gland which is also on the tip of the tail. It's actually the last segment on the tail and I'll set that aside. Now in China they use much smaller scorpions and they leave the stingers on. But because I'm using larger ones I think I'd like that off.
Have you ever been stung? One time, I thought, Well, I'll just grab it. I know the guys who collect them do it, and if you grab them just right, you're not going to get stung, period. I reached in and grabbed a live scorpion and its stinger went straight through the very top layer of my skin and came out again. I was like, man, if someone was trying to teach me a lesson, this would be a good one. The people that harvest them usually wear gloves but they get stung from time to time. It's kind of like a bee sting, but it's not like I'm going to drop dead.
Well that's encouraging. Yeah.
Check back in tomorrow for our part two primer on how to cook with bugs.