Meaty, cheesy, coconutty: a chef’s quest to prove insects taste delicious

Some people might shy away from eating bugs off their plates, but Chef Joseph Yoon is popularizing the age-old practice of entomophagy – with mouthwatering results

Chef Joseph Yoon is used to people reacting negatively to his creations: he’s watched a child cry when she realized the pumpkin cake in her mouth was made with cricket powder, seen a grown adult spit out his bug-laden bite of food, and endured racist online comments aimed at him for suggesting that scorpions or mealworms are worth eating.

But none of that seems to faze Yoon. If anything, it just reaffirms the importance of his work destigmatizing entomophagy. As the founder of Brooklyn Bugs and a self-described “edible insect ambassador”, Yoon is on a mission to prove that eating bugs is good for the planet – and the palate.

Yoon’s work includes giving presentations everywhere from elementary schools to Harvard, partnering with institutions like the Smithsonian and Nasa on sustainable food initiatives, and occasionally cooking for journalists like me, all in an effort to raise awareness about the planetary benefits and culinary joys of eating bugs.

“I like to share the sense of hope and optimism and to be able to capture people’s imagination through cooking insects,” Yoon said from his kitchen table in Queens over a bite of stir-fried cicadas. “The question is: how do we start changing the perception from insects as pests to something that’s sustainably farmed, nutrient dense and that can add a tremendous amount of flavor to your food?”

Insect consumption has been highlighted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as an important tool in addressing food insecurity for a growing global population. And since agriculture is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after the energy sector, insect eating presents a compelling climate solution, too – crickets, for example, can provide the same amount of protein as cows for less than 0.1% of the emissions.

Yoon pointed out that people have been eating insects since long before the practice was recognized as a climate win. “There are over 2 billion people in 80% of the world’s nations that are already regularly consuming insects,” he said. But the stigma and yuck factor that persist in many places, including much of the US, are what Yoon is interested in changing.

Chef Joseph Yoon prepares a cricket vegetable curry.
Chef Joseph Yoon prepares a cricket vegetable curry. Photograph: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

His approach is to lead with the joy of eating. Learning to enjoy consuming bugs might require some retraining of your palate depending on where you grew up, he said, but we apply that training whenever we try new foods from unfamiliar cultures or admonish our kids to eat veggies.

“There are over 2,000 types of edible insects with wildly different flavor profiles, textures and functionality,” Yoon said. “Take garlic, for comparison. Say someone was like, ‘I love garlic, try a piece raw,’ and you’d never had it before, you’d probably be like, ‘This is really intense, I don’t like this.’ You have to learn to work with the ingredient, to roast it, to saute it … We’re just at the very tip of understanding how to truly work with insect protein.”

So where might the entomophagy-curious get started? And what do all these varieties of bug actually taste like? Yoon and I sat down together over a beautifully plated bug tasting menu served in his home kitchen to dig in to those questions and talk through a few of his go-to insect ingredients.

Crickets: a nutty flavor

“Crickets are commonly referred to as the gateway bug,” Yoon told me, serving up a few different varieties of his homemade kimchi that substitute cricket powder for fish sauce. “I’ve cooked easily over 100 unique dishes with crickets.”

Available in both whole and powdered form, crickets are farmed in indoor settings and given a savory, “nutty” flavor by roasting. Yoon noted that crickets are remarkably versatile – you can add the powder to smoothies, baked goods or hummus to increase the protein content, or use them to form a crunchy crust on fried foods.

Grasshoppers: a savory snack

There are many flavor and texture similarities between grasshoppers and crickets, Yoon said, though grasshoppers tend to be a bit meatier. But the grasshoppers he served me, nestled on a bed of delicately arranged avocado and mango, were something special: they were chapulines, seasoned with lime, chillies and salt. Gathered from Oaxaca, Mexico, these are some of the only insects that are caught outside in specially designated fields, Yoon said.

Yoon prepares avocado, mango, grasshoppers, lime, black ants and agave worm salt.
Yoon prepares avocado, mango, grasshoppers, lime, black ants and agave worm salt. Photograph: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

“These are also sold at [T-Mobile Park] in Seattle, and they sell out of grasshoppers every ball game,” he said of the stadium where the Mariners play. They were so tasty that I found that easy to believe – and they were the first insects I looked into buying for myself after leaving Yoon’s kitchen.

Ants: ‘insect caviar’

Yoon described black ants as “insect caviar” and “almost like Pop Rocks” while sprinkling them as a garnish over soft-boiled quail eggs. Their formic acid content gives black ants a bright, citrusy tang, which is why Yoon uses them in “virtually any application where I want a citrus flavor”, he said, whether that’s a vinaigrette or a cocktail.

Weaver ants, while similar to their ebony counterparts, are bigger and “a little woodsier, with a little bit of a lemon flavor”, said Yoon. They’re particularly popular as an ingredient in chutneys or salsas, he added.

Manchurian scorpions: a shrimp-like taste

Despite being some of the more intimidating-looking critters in his pantry – those stingers! – Manchurian scorpions actually have a rather familiar flavor, Yoon noted. “These are brined in salt and sun-dried. They’re arthropods just like shrimp, so they have a baby-shrimp-esque quality and flavor,” he said. The scorpion he served me was tantalizingly dripping in gochujang, but he said he also enjoys eating scorpions in the form of a dashi stock that combines them with mushrooms and kombu.

Whole insects and insect powders at Chef Joseph Yoon’s home kitchen.
Whole insects and insect powders at Chef Joseph Yoon’s home kitchen. Photograph: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

Bamboo worms, weevils and wasps: creamy, coconutty, sweet

Bamboo worms, which hail from south-east Asia, aren’t worms at all, but caterpillars that live in bamboo thickets. Yoon said that they’re so mild and creamy that they’re tasty enough to be eaten straight out of the bag.

Another creamy variety is the palm weevil: besides being a low-carbon protein source, palm weevils are also an invasive species that causes damage to palm trees, which is all the more reason to eat them. Yoon served the slightly coconutty critter toasted on a bed of roasted beets with a cricket-powder-infused green goddess dressing and a sprinkling of black ants.

For a different kind of sweetness, look to Japanese wasps. Their flavor “starts a little bit sweet and finishes with this really fascinating minerality,” Yoon said. In Japan, people sometimes add the wasps to sake to infuse the alcohol with their unique flavor.

Mopane worms: pungent and earthy

Popular in Botswana and Zimbabwe, mopane worms are actually the caterpillar form of the emperor moth. Gathered from the mopane tree, they are commonly enjoyed in stews or maize porridges. For the western palate, Yoon recommends using aromatics like onions and garlic to balance their pungent flavor.

Cicadas: a meaty treat

The surprisingly meaty cicadas Yoon served on a bed of rice are “the most buggy” item on the menu: with legs and wings intact, there’s no mistaking them for anything else. But their flavor, enhanced by stir-frying with chillies and garlic, was enjoyable enough that I’d happily eat them again. These specimens were extra-special for a few reasons – first off, Yoon foraged them himself, and second, they were part of last summer’s Brood X emergence, an occurrence that only happens once every 17 years. He also served some cicada kimchi to showcase other ways they can be eaten.

Chef Yoon holds a dish made of roasted beets, palm weevils, cricket green goddess sauce and black ants.
Chef Yoon holds a dish made of roasted beets, palm weevils, cricket green goddess dressing and black ants. Photograph: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The Guardian

Superworms: nature’s cheese puff

When eaten alone, superworms have a somewhat cheesy flavor that makes them a nice pairing for fruit, Yoon said. Tasting one by itself, I could see what he meant – it was a little like nature’s cheese puff. He then pulled out brownies for dessert that he told me contained both mealworm powder and whole mealworms, which he described as tasting “nutty with a hint of cacao and dried mushrooms,” and though I could sense a bit of a unique crunch, the truth is they just tasted like deliciously chocolatey but otherwise normal brownies.

Yoon laughed. “That’s very commonly the reaction when people try my food. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s just food.’ It’s not this crazy thing. And that’s really what I’m trying to help people appreciate, so they can see insects as a new ingredient they can integrate into the things they already like to eat.”

• This article was amended on 14 September 2022 to correct the spelling of mopane worms, and to clarify that the penultimate paragraph should refer to superworms, and not mealworms, as we originally had.

Whitney Bauck

The GuardianTramp

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