What’s up with people eating cicadas?


Every 13 and 17 years, species of Cicadas only found in North America emerge from the ground to transform into their adult forms. Billions (yes, with a B) swarm the eastern part of the country, singing their song for the sole purpose of attracting mates.

They’re not just swarming right outside people’s homes, these guys are such a nuisance that they even caused a flight delay by filling the engines of a plane, and causing a car crash by flying into a driver’s face.

Well, aside from these incidents, cicadas themselves are actually rather harmless. They don’t bite or sting and are practically defenceless against any predators. For many predators, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a never-ending cicada buffet. As weird as it sounds, offering themselves as a never-ending buffet is a survival trait called predator satiation; eventually predators become so full that the rest of the uneaten cicadas survive to reproduce. So maybe the predators can eat a few million cicadas, but can they eat billions of cicadas?

But if there are any species capable of eating another to extinction, humans come to mind. Cicada recipes are popping up all around and some restaurants are serving up dishes like Cicada sushi, Cicada tacos, Avocicada Toast.

Cicada Sushi by Chef Bun Lai, photo by Galina Parfenov 

‘Shrimp of the land’

Apparently, some people call them the Shrimp of the Land. Enough people have tried it that the US FDA asked people not to eat cicadas if they’re allergic to seafood. The proteins found in shellfish, like shrimps and lobsters, are very similar to the ones in cicadas.

Putting cicadas and shrimp side by side, you can definitely see the resemblance. I’m just not sure whether that makes me feel worse about eating shellfish or better about eating insects.

Perhaps that was what European Colonists felt about American Lobsters for a brief time in North American history. For that few hundred years, lobsters were considered to be like cockroaches and generally eaten by peasants or fed to prisoners.

But that’s only in North America. In most of the rest of the world, lobsters were still considered expensive food. Lobsters had to be cooked within two days of leaving salt water, which naturally drove the price up for in-land countries. Being hard to obtain, lobster recipes made their way into the cookbooks of haute cuisine.

Though, to say that insects and shellfish are related isn’t exactly very accurate. Cicadas, shrimp and lobsters fall under the same phylum of arthropods. Phylum as a level of classification is pretty wide; arthropods would include all insects and spiders. Under the same classification, humans would fall under the phylum of chordate and would be related to tigers and elephants. While all three are technically mammals, those are quite different in biology. And, well, I would guess taste too. 

But forget the science.

What do Cicadas actually taste like?

Some compare their tastes to shrimp, though some people also say they don’t taste like anything. That comparison does bring a question though: if we usually de-shell shrimp to eat them, then why aren’t people deshelling cicadas?

Seasoned eaters of cicadas say the bugs are best eaten right after they moult and before their exoskeletons form so the texture isn’t crunchy. Sort of like soft shell crab. But you know, for cicadas. They call this type of cicadas tenerals. The wings can also be cut off since they’re useless nutrition-wise, and doing so also removes the pain of having nasty bits in your mouth.

Cicada going into teneral state

Entomophagy – Eating Insects

If all these talks about eating insects (Entomophagy) are making you squeamish, it just might be cultural. To about 2 Billion people on the planet, it’s actually not at all unusual to eat things like fried grasshoppers (Belalang Goreng), buttered ant larvae (Escamole) and roasted silkworm pupa (beondegi).

Unfortunately, most of these dishes also tend to look exactly the same as their live counterpart, which makes even staring at the plate uncomfortable as the eyes of the insect stare down at you while you contemplate whether to reach for one. Am I the only one who thinks this is unusual? I mean, chicken isn’t usually served whole, with feathers and everything. Even raw chicken breast looks a little bit disgusting, but when you cook it, you transform its appearance so it looks delicious and nothing like when it was alive.

It seems like I’m not the only one with that sentiment. Here are some examples of dishes served that don’t look like they contain insect.

Like guacamole with homemade tacos. And you wouldn’t be able to tell, but the “black salt” seasoning is made from ants.

Image:Patrice Waite

Or polenta fries served with tomato chilli chutney? Just a little secret ingredient with Mopane worms.

Image: Joziwire

Or insect ice cream made from Black Fly Larvae!

Image: Gourmet Grubb

Why eat insects when we can have normal steaks?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has several documents that explain this in more detail than I can, but the gist is that insects as a protein source require less land use, produce less water footprint, require less feed, and much more of their bodies are edible. 

This means that insect farms, in theory, would contribute less to global warming and is more sustainable in the long run. Perhaps the idea of insects being part of future you’s regular diet may not be quite appealing, but it’s not a guarantee that we all have an insect-eating future yet. Things like food safety and large scale production are still question marks for making it viable. And of course, convincing people to do so on a regular basis is difficult to say the least. 

But we’ll see what happens the next time cicadas come out of the ground again.

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