Spirits Feature

Bug Juice
Eating and drinking insects

The first bite tastes like dried tobacco. Then comes the insinuation of cocoa and the smoky rush of ancho chiles. Wings and legs snap in the mouth; the abdomen and thorax crunch, then deliver a puff of richness. A heat—not from the peppered seasoning but from the creature itself—lingers at the back of the palate.

Turns out, chapulines—grasshoppers, in this case born and raised and roasted in Oaxaca—are delicious. Especially when washed down with a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned made with cricket bitters.

Around the world, entomophagy (eating insects) is tradition. In fact, bugs are part of the diet of at least two billion people worldwide, and 80 percent of the world’s nations eat insects. Soon, so may Western outliers. With global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, the world will have to increase its food production by 70 percent in order to feed us all. Given their high protein capacity and low environmental impact, insects may be the answer.

Now that dozens of insect farms and insect-based products have popped up across the US, bugs are making their way onto restaurant menus. The gateway seems to be the bar, where everything from cockroaches to giant ants are appearing alongside drinks rimmed with ant salt or crushed caterpillars.

Not that a bug in your drink is new: When Campari was invented in the mid-19th century, its red color came from the cochineal scale—Dactylopius coccus—an insect in the same order as cicadas that lives on prickly pear plants. While the aperitif switched to a less natural dye some years back, many other spirits continue to use the scale bug juice. If a spirit lists E120, carmine, cochineal or sometimes even Natural Red 4, that dye comes from the cochineal scale.

At present, it’s crunchy, tasty, winged grasshoppers that are having their day. For years, they’ve been sold from roadside stands in Niger, where grasshoppers collected from the millet fields have been known to command a higher price than the millet itself. They also sell en masse at markets across Oaxaca, Mexico. Now, when the sun crests high above Seattle’s Safeco Field, lines of diners march away from Edgar’s Cantina food stand, each clutching a four-ounce cup full of chapulines. So popular are the roasted grasshoppers that the restaurant had to limit sales per game to just 312 orders—Edgar Martinez’s batting average. With their satisfyingly crunchy texture, earthy flavor and hint of heat, chapulines could rival the potato chip.

Hoppers are also making it into cocktails: Launched in 2015, Critter Bitters are made with roasted crickets raised at Tiny Farms in Silicon Valley. Smoky, silky and flecked with brown cricket bits, Critter Bitters have a richness that hints at the protein from the crickets, as well as an almost vanilla-candle warmth. That may be because, in addition to the dry-roasted crickets, there is also sarsaparilla, rose hips, cinnamon, dandelion root, gentian and pepper in these bottles. For a purer cricket flavor, Critter Bitters also offers a tincture made of just water, alcohol and dry-roasted crickets—of which co-founder Julia Plevins estimates there are roughly ten in a bottle. Defining that cricket flavor can be tough if you haven’t eaten crickets. The closest I can come is this: If a shrimp lived on land instead of in the saline sea, and if it ate things like plants drying in the sun, then that land shrimp might taste like crickets, and that flavor would shine through in the tincture. Justin Logan at Ruta del Vino in DC likes to use the bitters in his Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. It makes the quintessential pairing for tacos stuffed with chapulines and guacamole.

Black ants season the guacamole and Margarita at Black Ant in NYC. Black ants season the guacamole and Margarita at Black Ant in NYC.
Ants Soldier On
Just a pinch of black ants goes a long way. Crisp and crunchy, they start with an acidic pop and limey flavor and finish with a sort of inky note. At Black Ant, a Mexican restaurant in NYC with everything from cocopaches (cockroaches) to chapulines on the menu,ants add dramatic flair to the guacamole, as well as to its perfect pairing: A bright Margarita rimmed with enough crushed-ant salt to give it an extra limey kick.

It’s in their pupal form, however, that ants are more traditionally served, as in the famed ant-egg omelets of Laos, and as kai mot daeng—red ant egg larvae—served in salads and soups, or as a stand-alone snack in Thailand.

Mexico’s escamoles may be the best known execution of ant larvae and pupae. The egg sacs, collected from the tunnels of velvety tree ants in central Mexico, resemble pine nuts or small white beans. Each ant nest produces eggs just four times a year, all between the months of February and April.

With their creamy texture and nutty flavor, escamoles are typically fried in butter or doused in mojo de ajo—a garlic sauce—then wrapped in a tortilla. Traditionally, they’d be served alongside pulque, a milky, viscous beverage made by fermenting (rather than distilling) the sap of the maguey agave. Because it’s not pasteurized, pulque is not available in the US, which is why Andres Blanco, sommelier at Houston’s Caracol restaurant, recommends a textured white, such as an Alsace pinot gris, for escamoles.

Caterpillars—gusanos—whether they are in the bottom of a bottle, rimming a Margarita glass, or covering a plate, are also intertwined with Mexico’s culinary culture. Red and white maguey worms—caterpillars, really, the larvae of moths and butterflies respectively—are found on agave plants across central Mexico. While you’ll rarely find a quality mezcal with a gusano at the bottom anymore, the caterpillars are considered a delicacy whether they’re roasted, toasted or fried. Served simply in tacos, the gusano’s earthy aroma and buttery, bacon-like flavor shines next to a glass of mezcal.

Meanwhile, bartenders in the US are dipping slices of orange in sal de gusano—the traditional Mexican spice that combines sea salt, chile costeño and ground red maguey worms—and serving it alongside a neat mezcal or adorning the rim of a Margarita glass.

Beetle Juice
Hoppers may be the most acceptable insect to American palates, but beetles comprise 31 percent of the world’s insect intake, both as crunchy exoskeletons and larvae.

In Thailand, red palm weevil larvae and pupae are typically stir-fried in a wok, served in a curry with vegetables, or battered and deep fried. Given their high fat content, these larvae can be cooked without oil. Stir-fry them with Thai basil and hot chile peppers and the larvae become a kind of finger food, served with cold beer, such as Singha, one of the nation’s traditional lagers, or rice whiskey.

While they can be found on the occasional Thai restaurant menu, such as at New York’s Playground Thai, in Queens, beetles have yet to make much of an inroad in America. But the giant water bug, also known as the giant Thai water bug and as maeng da, may soon change that. Downright aromatic, maeng da is a key ingredient in the Thai chile sauce, nam prik. Roughly two inches long, the male beetles are full of pheromones, which are emitted as an aromatic hydrocarbon.

“These aromatic hydrocarbons are really lightweight molecules—big, but lightweight. They’re in rings, and they go up in the air so you can kind of taste and smell the giant water bug at the same time,” says David George Gordon, author of the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook. Much like gin, with an aroma and flavor that can only be described as green apple Jolly Rancher, they may just be the wave of cocktails future.

Seattle restaurant Nue is blazing that trail. While the restaurant serves three giant water bugs as a peel-and-eat-style appetizer—best paired with a rice-based pilsner to avoid overpowering the flavor—they really shine in cocktails. What happens when three giant water bugs walk into a bottle of vodka? You get Nue’s Beetle Juice cocktail, a unique, green-apple-Jolly-Rancher-esque Martini with zero cloying sweetness.

Bugs on the Mind 
Once you’ve had a few ants, or sunk into a crunchy grasshopper taco served alongside a cricket-bitter’d Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, you begin seeing food everywhere. It’s there on the porch, singing in the grass late into the evening, and hopping just beyond the bar, where your scale-bug Negroni is awaiting a crackling plate of butterflies destined never to take flight. One piece of advice: When you serve that Oaxaca Old-Fashioned to your friends, you may not want to mention there’s a bug in their drink.

illustration by Vivian Ho; photo by Mike Rush

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2018.
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Tags  Julie H. Case