NEW YORK – It’s a Friday night in Manhattan’s East Village, and six-month-old contemporary Mexican restaurant The Black Ant is buzzing. There’s an hour wait for a table, and in the dim dining room, groups sample inventive fare such as cod cheek tacos, pig’s feet with blood clams and, even more adventurously, grasshoppers.
“More and more people are asking for them,” says chef Mario Hernandez, who uses the insects in such dishes as tostada-style tlayuda con chapulines, topped with black bean puree, queso de rancho and chile de agua salsa, or in an off-menu side dish, sauteed with garlic, chile de árbol and lime juice and served with fresh corn tortillas and salsa. “People are getting used to the idea.”
Entomophagy, or insect-eating, is nothing new outside the U.S. Some 80 percent of the world’s cultures regularly eat bugs. In the coming decades, insects could prove a nutritional and eco-friendly solution as overpopulation puts a strain on our current food systems. Crickets, for example, require a sixth as much feed as cattle to produce the same amount of protein—all while emitting far fewer greenhouse gases.
That said, Western diners have been relatively slow to embrace the idea of consuming insects. David George Gordon published the first edition of his Eat-a-Bug Cookbook in 1998. “Back then, eating bugs was reserved for contestants on ‘Fear Factor,’” he says. “But in the past few years, that’s all been changing. I’ve seen a real explosion of chefs experimenting with insects.”
Grasshopper now appears on menus across the country, from Hugo’s in Houston to Guelaguetza in LA to Gringo in St. Louis. At Portland’s Sushi Mazi, you can order a nigiri-style grasshopper, tied to a slab of sticky rice with a strand of seaweed. Indian chef Meeru Dhalwala, of Vij’s in Vancouver and Shanik in Seattle, is a recent convert. “I’ve always been one of those people who thinks ‘Eww, there’s a bug!’” she admits. “But as a chef, I want to combine taste, nutrition and a minimal strain on the environment in every dish. When I read about how sustainable insects are, I knew I had to try it.” This spring, she debuted an instantly popular paratha (flat bread), baked with ground cricket flour and topped with tomato-onion chutney and seasonal greens.
Having seen the warm reception at The Black Ant, Hernandez may add more species to his menu, which already includes ant-infused salt sprinkled on house guacamole and on the rim of the tequila-based Yum Kaax cocktail, and tacos enchapulinados, filled with shrimp fried in a grasshopper-flour batter. “A recent UN report tells us people worldwide eat 1,900 kinds of bugs,” he says. “Let’s explore other options.”
But will it catch on? “Who would have thought 30 years ago that sushi would take off in the U.S. like it did?” Gordon asks. “Back then, none of us said, ‘Let’s go out and spend tons of money on raw fish!’”
HILDAGO, MEXICO – San Agustín Tlaxiaca in Mexico’s rural Hidalgo state, two hours north of Mexico City, is a semiarid town of mesquite trees, cacti and little else, where eagles and vultures compete for wild turkeys and the occasional lost lamb. At José Carlos Redon’s family farm, a retama plant vibrates with dozens of gorgeous xaue bugs, which look like cockroaches mated with butterflies. They will be served later with lunch. At the plant’s base, Redon lifts a rock to expose a honeycomb nest made of spit and dirt, a cluster of giant winged ants and thousands of tiny workers. “This is good news,” he says. “More queens mean more escamoles next year.”
We’re a long way from the lush courtyard restaurant of the capital’s San Angel Inn, where in the late ’90s I was stunned by a plate of tiny tacos filled with what looked and tasted like a cross between buttery corn kernels and nutty Israeli couscous. Nicknamed “Mexican caviar,” escamoles are ant larvae—specifically, those that would become queens, were I not eating them in a taco—and they’re phenomenally tasty.
I met Redon this spring eating sopes de escamol from his Bueno Bonito Bistrot food truck in Mexico City. When he suggested that I come take a look at how the eggs were harvested and pick out a few for myself, I couldn’t say no.
The ants’ ecosystem can’t be cultivated, so we roam for miles in Hidalgo in search of microscopic trails and the telltale sweet-spicy pheromone scent. The reward for hiking all day is to reach into heaving nests filled with biting ants to collect the prize. It’s no wonder they can go for $60 a pound.
Back at the farm, Redon (pictured, by Nils Bernstein) flicks ants from his ears and legs as he sautées a pan full of escamoles with onion, garlic, the herb epazote and aloe flowers for color, and tucks it into fresh tortillas. I let the ants crawl on me while I eat. I’m used to the sensation by now—we’ve bonded after all.
SÃO PAULO – To beat the heat, Brazilians look for inspiration to the Amazon, where locals swear by a boiling broth called tacacá. It’s hot, it’s spicy, and it’s beloved for its ability to bring on a cooling sweat. The soup, served by street vendors in hollow gourds, starts with a base of tucupi, the gooey juice of the manioc root, which is toxic if not boiled for hours. It’s then topped with dried shrimp, chewy tapioca gum, cheira chilies and jambú, a leaf that numbs and tingles like Szechuan peppercorn.
These days, the dish is having a moment in Brazil’s culinary capital, São Paulo. Once a month, chef Mara Salles opens the street-side windows at Tordesilhas to sell steaming gourds of the stuff for $6 a pop.
Alex Atala, whose D.O.M. often ranks on world’s best restaurant lists, was one of the city’s first to recognize jambú’s potential. “The first time I tried it, it was awful,” he says, “but it becomes an
addiction.” He now uses the feisty herb as a flavor multiplier in dishes like filhote (Amazonian catfish) with tucupi, tapioca, zucchini and green tomato gel. Feeling adventurous? At Noh cocktail bar, the
and apple rum shot gently shocks your taste buds and leaves your next beer tasting bigger and sweeter.
LAS VEGAS – Like many Americans, pastry chef Christina Tosi of New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar grew up on a cereal-heavy diet. And as with the rest of us, the sweet milk left behind after breakfast held a special place in her sugar-loving heart. She mined this nostalgic treat to create her trademark “cereal milk,” made by steeping toasted corn flakes in milk, which she then puts to good use in an intensely flavorful White Russian. Inspired by Tosi’s seamless blending of the childlike and the adult, mixologists across the country have turned their eyes toward the cereal aisle. At D.C.’s Satellite Room, chef Wylie Ballinger debuted a line of six Breakfast Cereal Boozy Milkshakes, which pair spirits with complementary cereals, such as Bacardi rum with Fruity Pebbles or Lucky Charms with Paddy’s Irish whiskey. At New York’s BLT Bar & Grill, the “blackboard special” Drunken Sailor cocktail includes Cap’n Crunch–infused milk, Stoli vanilla and Chambord, and is served with a cereal rim for added crunch. At Holstein’s, the glammed-up burger joint at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, pastry chef Rebecca Bills pulverizes Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops directly into the milk to create a smooth, silky base for her Cereal Bowl cocktail. Here, she tells us how to make one ourselves.
Place all ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth. Pour into a glass and top with whipped cream, Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch.
1 For the Animal Lover: Tamber Bey Vineyards takes its name from owner Barry Waitte’s first Arabian horses, Tamborina and Bayamo. So, when the winery moved to its new Calistoga digs last year, it was only natural to place the tasting room smack in the middle of a 16-stall stable. A $45 tasting offers a tour of the winemaking facilities, plus a chance to mingle with Waitte’s prized racehorses.
2 For the Green Thumb: Anyone can pick out wine varietals by taste, but try doing it by sight. St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, in Rutherford, has revived
the long-forgotten art of ampelography—identifying grapevine types simply by looking at the unique characteristics of their leaves, shoots and fruit clusters. But don’t worry, it’s not all leaf gazing: After the instructional vineyard walk comes a full wine tasting paired with small bites.
3 For the DIY-er: Many wineries offer insight into the winemaking experience, but at St. Helena’s Conn Creek Winery, you’ll come away feeling like a pro. The two-hour Barrel Blending Experience seminar lets wannabe vintners sample cabernet sauvignon from more than a dozen of Napa Valley’s sub-appellations and then use that knowledge to blend their own signature bottle.
4 For the Sweet Tooth: St. Helena’s Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley, has partnered with Scharffen Berger for a next-level pairing program. Three selections of local artisanal chocolate are matched with wines chosen to bring out complementary flavor notes—a pinot noir, for example, is often coupled with a lighter 62 percent cacao semisweet chocolate, while the cabernet sauvignon demands the assertiveness of an 82 percent cacao extra dark chocolate.