Given the recent health department crackdown on cicada ice cream in Missouri, Smithsonian’s Food & Think blog revisits the issue of entomophagy—that is, the fancy Latin term for eating insects. Naturally, the article mentions several exotic locales where certain bugs are considered a delicacy, including, yes, Washington, D.C., where some fancy restaurants sell tacos stuffed with grasshoppers. Not that this is anything new: Y&H alum Tim Carman wrote about his first tasting of tacos de chapulines at the original Oyamel location in Crystal City back in 2006.
I recently sampled the tiny toasted critters myself. Without the tortilla. Or guacamole. Just a bunch of little bugs on a plate. You expect insects to be crunchy but these were more chewy, almost like raisins. Salty and a little spicy. Potentially, a great bar snack, if you can get past the whole creepy-crawly notion.
In taco form, the little guys are immensely popular. At Oyamel’s current location in Penn Quarter, head chef Joe Raffa tells me the restaurant goes through about 15 to 20 kilos (that’s right, the critters arrive from Oaxaca in kilo bags, not unlike other Mexican imports) each month on average: “Of the 11 or so tacos that I have on the menu, the grasshopper taco is consistently No. 4 or 5 [in terms of popularity]. When we run out, which we occasionally do, because supply lines between here and Mexico aren’t always so reliable, people get angry. Really, really upset. Because that’s sort of become the thing that we’re known for.”
Raffa explains that the grasshoppers are rounded up from Mexican fields and put in dark rooms, “so they clean themselves out, sort of like you would with shrimp.” The bugs are then quickly blanched in boiling water, drained and cooked on a cabal, toasted until they’re “not completely desiccated but they start to dry out a little bit,” he says. After bagging, shipping and delivery to D.C., Raffa then cooks them with chipotle, shallot, and tequila.
While chapulines are something of a novelty in the District, the bugs are on virtually every street corner in Oaxaca, often piled high in big baskets. “It’s cheap protein,” Raffa says.
Indeed, and therein lies the potential. While knocking back bugs dates back centuries, the Wall Street Journal recently dubbed insects “The Six-Legged Meat of the Future” for a variety of reasons:
As the global population booms and demand strains the world’s supply of meat, there’s a growing need for alternate animal proteins. Insects are high in protein, B vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc, and they’re low in fat. Insects are easier to raise than livestock, and they produce less waste.
For now, the allure of eating insect-stuffed tortillas generally has more to do with curiosity than necessity. “I know when a table orders the first one, it’s a dare, and I get that, I’m fine with it,” Raffa says. “Then you see the same table order the second and the third. It’s not ‘wow,’ anymore—they’re hooked.”