There are plenty of animals that we love to eat regardless of their looks. Flounder comes to mind; having both of your eyes on one side of your face isn't exactly the prettiest setup. Or lobster, even—they're essentially giant sea bugs with Transformers-style exoskeletons and beady little eyes that wiggle around on thin filaments. But that sure won't stop us from digging into surf and turf.
Tarantulas are another story.
Not all of us have level-10 arachnophobia, but somewhere between their furry skin and eight chubby legs lies a near-unparalleled tendency to render many of us squeamish, if not screaming. Maybe it's all of those childhood watchings of Home Alone, but it's difficult to imagine seeing tarantulas on menus nationwide. That isn't to say, however, that they're not delicious.
The third installment of our Cooking with Bugs series turns the heat up on eating tarantulas, which—believe it or not—are happily snacked on in many parts of the world. Insect-cooking expert David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and insect chef-de-cuisine at the annual Explorers' Club dinner in New York, has already filled us in on sautéing scorpions and enjoying crunchy crickets, and now he's ready to help us tackle what just might be the most taboo of entomological entrées: fangy, fuzzy spiders. Are you feeling brave today?
It's time we talked about our least favorite subject in the world: tarantulas. There's no polite way to put it, but the sight of them really freaks us out. A lot of people have arachnophobia; I don't want to take that lightly, but people have what are technically called unreasonable fears for all sorts of stuff. I'm not really friendly with snakes; it's kind of like a gut feeling. I think it goes way back to cellular memory. Way back when, we were living in much closer quarters with critters like spiders and snakes when it paid to be weary of them, which was a good thing for survival.
That's a good point. We still blame John Goodman for our arachnophobia. So how do these creatures actually taste? They taste very similar to soft-shell crab. First, I freeze them. Then, I take a sharp knife and remove the abdomen, which is essentially just a fluid-filled sack, so you're not losing any great nutrition there. I set that aside, then singe off their hairs. I used to use a crème brûlée torch, but it is too hot for this purpose, so I now use a hand-held cigarette lighter. It is really important to singe off all of the body hairs because they are irritants, and if you don't prepare them properly, you can make people ill. I like to put them into a tempura batter and deep-fry them. The body is a lot thinner and more pliable than, say, a grasshopper, so the texture is more chewy than crunchy.
Interesting. So what are some other applications for preparing them? When I serve the tarantulas—and again we're talking about where the meat is—the legs are the best part. If you actually cut off all eight legs, you get these bonus things called petty palps, which are actually mouth parts, but they look like little legs. That word petty palp means food mouth, so you've got ten of these little dealies; that's where all the meat is. Certainly you can open up the body and pick out more meat if you think about a Dungeness crab, you can certainly get in there, but you're also dealing with things like the gills and all that. It's a little more surgery than most people are up to do.
Have you ever tried to? Oh absolutely. I'm a maniac, so I do eventually pick those apart if I'm sitting around.
Is it possible to make, say, a tarantula carpaccio, or offal with the organs? I never have, but it's probably worth trying.
So which parts of the body should we be eating, or avoiding altogether? With your knife, you can just go around and cut off the legs. It's basically the same size, shape, and texture as Cheetos.
Have you ever had any mishaps in the kitchen with these furry things? Years ago, there was an event where the chef who was in charge served tarantulas with their hairs still on. He threw live ones into hot oil, which I personally find cruel to animals. Several people went to the emergency room after that banquet.
Why? Because of the hairs, which are an irritant. Back when people had practical joke itching powder—the kind you used to be able to buy from catalogues—was made out of those hairs. If you were to consume cooked tarantulas with the hairs still on, it would give you gastric distress, because those hairs are called urticating hairs.
Yikes. That sounds both terrifying and painful. Like that bathroom scene in Arachnophobia. Thanks for the advice!