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Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Cicadas Are Coming. Let’s Eat Them!

For 17 years, the trillions of cicadas known as Brood X have tunneled through dark soil, feeding on sap as they slowly matured. Babies during the George W. Bush years, these long-gestating underground bugs are starting to hatch across the eastern United States, emerging from the earth in astounding numbers. Their time above ground is short: three to six weeks, just long enough to mate and die. As a biological phenomenon, gigantic cicada broods are hard to ignore. They’re like crickets with musical-theater degrees—dramatic, loud, committed to a splashy outfit change. And while some people will delight in their natural spectacle, others will just want to be rid of them. There is, however, another reaction: Grab a fork and knife.

Brood X

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Brood X offers something beyond noise and wonder. Namely, it offers a source of free-range, no-cost, eco-friendly protein—one so good that Bun Lai is already out foraging. A New Haven, Connecticut–based chef renowned for pioneering sustainable sushi, Lai is currently in Washington, DC, where the cicadas have already begun to hatch, collecting as many as he can find. When he’s done, he’ll host a cicada-based popup dinner in the woods with his bounty. Lai plans to serve the cicadas in a paella, on a pizza, and as a sushi ingredient. He’s going to make some using indigenous preparation methods, too. “Cicadas taste a bit like nuts, as many insects do, but with every bite, my nose is reminded of popcorn, too,” he says.

Edible insects have been a part of rich culinary traditions around the world for years, from Mexico’s crunchy chapulines to beondegi, Korea’s silkworm pupae street food. In the US, though, colonizers did not end up adopting indigenous insect-eating habits. New York-based chef Joseph Yoon hopes the arrival of Brood X will help change that. He’s a cheery evangelist—he runs an advocacy organization called Brooklyn Bugs—and he sees this rare cicada surplus as the right moment to persuade American eaters to give them a chance. As Brood X emerges over a broad swath of the eastern United States, from northern Georgia to New York, some areas will see millions of the insects per acre. Most inhabitants will have more than they know what to do with. Now could be the ideal time to refine the US palate. “Over 80 percent of the world’s nations eat insects,” Yoon says. “Why are we missing out?”

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Adventurous chefs aren’t the only cheerleaders. Brian Fisher, an entomologist with the California Academy of Sciences, heads a project that encourages insect-eating in Madagascar, but he’s also bullish on edible critters coming to American kitchens. Like Yoon, he views the cicada as an appealing entry point for eaters wary of munching bugs. “It’s one of the beautiful, tasty ones!” he says. “It tastes like shrimp. It’s high-end.”

High-end, and with an appealingly low carbon footprint. Farming insects is much more efficient than raising conventional livestock, and the environmental case for eating insects is gaining momentum. “It takes much less land, much less energy,” says entomologist Jessica Ware, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. “As people in the northern hemisphere continue to use resources at the rate in which we use them, we’re going to need to make some change. And entomophagy would be a really good one in terms of sustainability.” Another do-gooder reason to consider the insect: Because they’re easy to harvest, they are seen as potential six-legged silver bullets for combating food insecurity.

With so many benefits to upping consumption, many people see insect-eating as part of food’s inevitable future. Investors are banking on Big Bug. (Market researchers predict the global edible insect market will reach $4.63 billion by 2027, with North America as the fastest-growing sector.) And even squeamish Americans are becoming more amenable to bug-based snacks. When toasted grasshoppers made the menu at Seattle’s T-Mobile ballpark for Mariners games in 2017, they quickly became a top-selling concession. You can find Chirps chips—made from crickets—at grocery stores across the country, including regional chains like ShopRite and Mom’s Organic.

But edible insects are still closer to a novelty than a staple in the standard American diet, which is why Yoon is using Brood X to get people pumped about creepy-crawlies. Over the next few weeks, he’s planning to catch hundreds of thousands of cicadas. Like short-season delicacies such as ramps, the tiny above-ground lifespan of the cicada means there’s no time to waste. In addition to preparing the insects for various pop-up dinners and demonstrations at his own test kitchen, Yoon also intends to preserve mass quantities of the insects through roasting, freeze-drying, and dehydrating, so that they can be used as an ingredient after the short window of seasonality is over.

Despite rising enthusiasm, cicadas aren’t exactly the new ramps, though. You’d think that the once-every-17-years uniqueness of the bugs could make them a hip new dish, but when I tried to find a restaurant in Brooklyn that planned to incorporate them into their menu as a seasonal delicacy, I struck out. People who want to be ahead of the curve, however, don’t have to wait for haute cuisine to catch up. There’s another option—home cooking. Seventeen years ago, when ecologist Jenna Jadin was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, she wrote a book of cicada-based recipes, cementing her love of entomophagy and picking up pointers for others who want to. (She’s hoping to update the book, Cicada-licious: Cooking and Enjoying Periodical Cicadas, since she didn’t actually test all the recipes—but for now, it’s still available for free online.) She recommends collecting cicadas in a Ziploc bag and then freezing them as the easiest way to euthanize them. (An important note: foraging of cicadas should not be undertaken in areas with industrial waste or heavy pesticide use, for obvious reasons, and people who have shellfish allergies should be aware there’s a heightened chance they’ll have a reaction.) She’s partial to chocolate-covered cicadas, but says that savory recipes can be tasty, too—it all comes down to how they’re prepared. “You want to remove the legs and the wings,” she says. “Those aren’t particularly nice.”


Lai, on the other hand, is a fan of the wings, and sees cicadas as a versatile ingredient. “Depending on how you prepare the 17-year cicadas, and the life stage that they are at, they can be chewy or have the crispiness of pan-fried trout skin,” he says. Although he cautions against eating pregnant females before they lay their eggs, he admits to tasting their caviar, which has “the creaminess of a miniature éclair.” He’s also an enthusiast for consuming the cicadas raw. “As a sushi chef and a Japanese person, I believe the best way to truly appreciate the cicada is by eating them straight up as sashimi, so you can experience the animal unadulterated by cooking,” he says. He recommends a citrus soy sauce dip.

Ultimately, the details of cicada preparation aren’t as important to the enthusiasts as the choice to simply try them out. Yoon wants people to see edible insects as a natural extension of their current diet rather than some big quirky deviation from it. A good way to get in that mindset, he says, is for home cooks to simply make their favorite dish and swap the usual protein for bugs. It’s harder to mess up a dish you’re already familiar with and it gets you past the fear of cooking something completely new. But if things don’t turn out, that’s OK, too—Brood II, a smaller but still formidable swarm, will emerge on the East Coast in 2030. You have nine years to prepare for the next feast.

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