Travel Stories: In one of Kunming's finest restaurants, Jeffrey Tayler samples the dragonfly larvae, bamboo bugs and grasshoppers
09.03.09 | 10:27 AM ET
If I told you that there’s a source of complex, highly nutritional animal protein available, one that’s found on every continent and in between them; one that can be boiled, fried, sautéed, or steamed, and seasoned with all manner of spices or served plain or even raw; and one that can be obtained by anyone with two hands (and perhaps a pair of puncture-proof gloves), what would you guess it to be? What if I added that the Old Testament forbids you to eat it? What if I also told you that your schoolmates may have dared you to scarf it down, or that you might have seen others doing so in a gross-out spot on a TV show? Still stumped?
Maybe not. You might have figured out that I’m talking about insects. As nourishing as such grub (no pun intended) might potentially be, something in us recoils at the thought of halting in a city park or a front yard and stooping down to snatch, say, a slug or a beetle off a pile of dog-doo, and chowing down on it. The authors of the Old Testament certainly concurred, warning us in Leviticus that “flying, creeping” critters such as these “shall be an abomination,” and forbade us from ingesting garden pests (with the exception, convenient for at least one saint-to-be in the Holy Book’s second installment, of locusts). Not that we needed to be forbidden. There’s just something inherently disgusting about eating bugs.
The notion that anyone might eat bugs as a matter of course (whether first course or second) seemed preposterous to me until I found myself chugging up the Congo River aboard a rusted old cargo barge in the dark days of 1995, before the advent of reality TV. From rag-clad villagers paddling by in wobbly pirogues my Zairois barge-mates often bargained for buckets of humongous squirming palm grubs, which they fried, spiky black legs wriggling helplessly, and then chewed on like pus-swollen popcorn as they watched the jungle drift by. They also bought bowls of squishy, hairy-backed caterpillars and ate them alive, their masticating chins drooling with green-yellow bug guts. (I’m sorry to be so disgusting here, but there’s no way around it.) Given the circumstances, my barge-mates’ choice of entrees made sound culinary sense. No one except the barge’s owner had a refrigerator to store perishables on a trip that lasted weeks. Bush meat, mostly smoked monkeys with clenched humanoid fists and faces contorted in heartrending, almost-human death grimaces, was rare and expensive. Fish were abundant, but only along certain stretches of river. So, people turned to bugs for protein, and what could be easier to catch than slow-moving grubs or caterpillars? As a courtesy, I joined the barge’s owner in a feast of crawling crudities. I ate grubs, and nearly vomited.
That was 14 years ago. Recently, during a stay in Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, I discovered that invertebrates figured among the delicacies served at one of the finest traditional eateries in town, the grand, pagoda-style Yunnanjiaren. This time, though, I didn’t recoil on finding a menu metaphorically crawling with, in this case, grasshoppers and larvae. As the years have passed, many of my gustatory preferences have altered, my pet peeves and dietary loathings have dwindled, and I’ve come to nurture fewer and fewer bêtes noires, whether of the hexapod or arthropod variety. Moreover, I love almost any kind of Chinese food, which disposed me to trust the chef at Yunnanjiaren to cook up a feast no matter what ingredients he had at hand. Also, call it an impish caprice born of a midlife crisis, but it seemed to me that maybe I should try a bug dish or two, at least as an appetizer, if not as a main course. I was just curious.
My dinner companion Ying had other ideas. A 27-year-old, thoroughly modern Chinese woman with predilections for Mexican-style pizza and Haagen-Dazs, rather than weevil stew and leafhoppers, Ying reacted with mute horror at my suggestion. She winced on seeing the laminated menu’s entomologically replete middle section, which bristled with photos of creepers and crawlers in their slaughtered and sauced-up form. The menu also happened to feature pig faces (“real pig faces,” Ying said, “scraped off the dead animal’s skull and fried”), goat testicles, purple rose petals, and gobs of aloe. These traditional outback dishes didn’t bother her, though; she knew them and enjoyed them, and they were commonly eaten in Yunnan.
But insects were another story. I wondered if the Yunnanjiarn’s cook could make them tasty.
“Would you like to share a plate of bugs?” I asked, suspecting I knew the answer.
“I don’t each such foods,” she said. “Because I am normal.” She looked around, perhaps wondering if any other diners had overheard me.
A chipper young xiaogunya approached our table. Ying ordered us a feast, including pork and vegetable specialties, and also, for herself, a ration of purple roses and aloe gobs. At my insistence, she also asked for the taster plate of bug dainties. Who wants a whole bowl of just grasshoppers? Or just larvae? Variety never hurts.
The bugs soon arrived, as did the flowers. To be frank, it looked as though some pest-obsessed gardener had dumped the contents of his trowel on the porcelain before me. On my broad plate, garnished with sprigs of parsley and divided by cucumber slices, were triangular heaps of dragonfly larvae, bamboo bugs, grasshoppers and bee babies, plus chunks of ginseng root. All had been sautéed. A finger-bowl of red pepper powder sat in the plate’s middle.
I grabbed my chopsticks and selected a pinkie-size bamboo bug. It was beige, with a multi-segmented integument, as biologists say. I dipped it in pepper and popped it into my mouth. It had the consistency and even the taste of mashed potatoes—nothing shocking at all. My chopsticks sallied forth again, this time snatching a pair of bee babies. These tasted like Rice Krispies, only with runny innards. The dragonfly larvae I had to really chew. This was less pleasant. They were slippery, with a sort of maggoty embonpoint that did not melt in my mouth. I left the grasshoppers for last. They had been harvested as adults, so their serrated legs, bulging thoraxes, and translucent papery wings riddled with sclerotised veins, were still attached. Maybe it was the sight of their compound eyes gazing up at me, but as I chowed down on them, I sensed a sour grassy taste, legs clawing at my tongue, wings crackling. I nearly retched, and barely managed to swallow. Sweat beaded on my forehead.
“Try some roses,” Ying said urgently.
I did. Thankfully, the flowers had no particular savor, no real culinary associations, and calmed me down. I could handle it: I was just sitting there eating roses, which might be viewed as more of a comic oddity than anything else, something an unrequited lover might do in a Farrelly Brothers flick. I then turned to gobs of aloe, slathered on what looked like cactus leaves, but I found them oily, a bit gross. No surprise there. I only knew of aloe as a lubricator in shaving cream, but later I checked my electronic Encyclopedia Britannica, which told me even less appetizingly that aloe is “used as an ingredient in cosmetics and in medicine as a purgative and as a treatment for burns.”
I returned to my plate. The ginseng bark was crunchy in a good way, and substantial. Swigs of Qingdao beer cleansed my palate, and I decided I was ready for the many other courses the waitress was bringing us. My excursion as a human insecticide was over.