At the risk of sounding pretentious, I consider myself somewhat of a culinary adventurer. I’ve tried everything from shark stew to ris d’agneau (fancy French for a lamb’s thymus). And, while I admit I haven’t revisited most of these daring dishes—mainly because they ended up tasting, to me, as gross as they sound to my American ears—something inside of me keeps wanting to press forward, to keep sampling new, unique cuisine from the far reaches of our planet.
To give a nod to author and blogger Trey Ellis, I don’t like to “yuck” anyone’s “yum”—not until I’ve tasted it, anyway. How can you pass judgment on foods other cultures love and, more importantly, sustain themselves with, when you haven’t even tried them yourself?
This weekend, several friends and I sampled the Empanadas de Chicharron de Chapulin (fancy Spanish for grasshopper turnovers) at Tu Y Yo, a wonderfully authentic Mexican restaurant in Somerville, Mass. Grasshoppers are considered a good source of protein throughout much of Mexico, particularly in Oaxaca, where they can be purchased as street food or enjoyed as a meal at home. (I learned this when I worked with authors and insect connoisseurs Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio for a NOVA feature I produced called “Bugs You Can Eat.”)
Though I’ve spent most of my life terrified of bugs, I figured what better way to conquer those fears than to eat my enemy? All right, so that sounded better in my head.
Here’s what my friends and I had to say about our first foray into the the world of creepy, crawly eats. But first, the brave tasters and the meal ahead:
Take a good look at those tasty, tasty bug bits.
Rima [slicing an empanada in half]: Do you guys see any grasshopper parts, here?
Audrey: You know, they’re not really distinguishable, but–Oh, there’s a leg!
Rima: Is that a knee? Do grasshoppers have knees? Gross.
Audrey: I thought I wouldn’t be nervous about this because I’ll eat pretty much anything, but now I’m having some second thoughts. [She tries it anyway.] You know, it’s not that bad. You can’t tell that there are grasshoppers in there. It just tastes like an empanada with something salty and greasy inside. It tastes like fried…meat. Just some sort of meat. Not that bad!
Brandon: I’m eying one of these middle pieces—I can see some discernible grasshopper parts. There’s definitely a thorax going on here! For the sake of food purity, I’m not going to sauce this. We’re just going to go pure, fried grasshopper. [He takes a big, greedy bite; most of the group gasps and/or gags.]
It’s pungent! It’s a little doughy, perhaps from not having been fried long enough, but I caught one of those furry little back legs that really tickles your tongue. Excellent mouth feel—I could eat a dozen of these.
Trying it with the sauce, I really like it. It’s got a little serrano chili, a little crème fraiche, a little cilantro. Fatty mouth feel, there. All of the flavors are really subtle.
Steve [after about a minute of chewing and thinking]: Trying it without the sauce, I couldn’t really taste anything identifiable in the empanada. I think I would need to just eat a plain grasshopper, no spices or seasoning, just to see what it really tastes like. This tastes like a generic fried appetizer to me.
Rima [moving a leg part around with her fork]: Wow. That does not look nice. I know it’s good, low-fat protein, however the visuals are really scaring me here. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I really don’t like for my animal by-products to look like the creatures from which they came.
Brandon: So, you like to be far-removed from the food you’re eating?
Rima: Absolutely. Not gonna lie. But, I’ll try it. In a minute.
Brandon: Just pop a whole one in your mouth. It’s delicious. It’s got the texture of soft-shell crab.
Rima [taking perhaps the smallest bite possible]: Psychologically, that was the scariest experience I’ve had in a long time. I’m terrified of insects, and there’s something weird about eating something you fear. Taste-wise, this was kind of a let-down. I’m with Steve and Audrey: The empanada just tasted like a fried, spiced meat turnover with no flavor of its own. I really like the sauce, though: It’s got a kick to it, but the creaminess really cools that down.
The dish is unlike anything I’ve tried before, and I’m not really too keen on trying it again.
Oh, yuck! You’re discarding the empanada and going straight for grasshopper pieces?!
Kristina: Is it chickening out if I just eat the doughy part?
Kristina: It’s… OK. Actually, it’s yucky. But, I think seeing the grasshopper body bits made it hard to objectively judge the taste.
Ethan: I’ll try it. [He takes a bite to rival Brandon's.]
It’s like a swarm in my mouth! A plague of flavor! To me, it’s kind of musty-tasting, like beef jerky mixed with shrimp chips.
Matt: Yeah, it’s pretty good! It’s chewy, but the grasshopper itself doesn’t have a strong flavor. I like it. I give it a thumbs up!
Audrey: On the second time around, I actually really like it. I just had a bigger piece, and I find it meaty. It’s fried, doughy meat.
Rima: Would you guys try this again?
Most of the table: No.
Brandon: I would! I’d definitely eat more grasshoppers in the future. I think I’ll get the grasshopper tacos next time and ask the restaurant to really fill them up.
Ew, is that a knee?
(Sidenote: I am a big fan of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” I got idea to transcribe our conversation above from their weekly blog series, “Sandwich Monday.” Read it. You’ll love it.)