When I was younger, my best friend's dad would always give us a lollipop on long car rides. I remember three things about those lollipops: they were bright green, tasted delicious, and had a cricket in the center. You know, like a Tootsie Roll Pop... only instead of a Tootsie Roll, a cricket.
My friend and I would sit in the backseat of his car and play a game: see who could get the closest to their cricket before they got so grossed out that they stopped eating the lollipop.
Most of my childhood bug-eating habits (I once ate a tick for a dollar; I'm not proud of this fact) gross me out today, but sucking up the courage to lick a cricket leg from my lollipop is something I'd repeat in a heartbeat. If I had one of those delicious suckers now, I'd eat the whole thing, cricket and all. Why? Because I now know that crickets are a commonly consumed food in Mexico, Thailand, and, well... most countries.
Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects, and it's rapidly gaining popularity. They're not just gimmicks, like in my lollipop; in Thailand crickets are fried and seasoned and eaten as a snack, the way Americans eat potato chips. In Mexico, crickets are so commonly eaten that they're used as a garnish on many dishes. And insects are even catching on in America, where they're often used as the base ingredient in protein bars.
Crickets taste similar to shrimp, but with a nuttier, earthier, umami flavor. They're quite good, and honestly a little addictive.
The most common way to cook a cricket is to fry it or bake it, because the earthy flavors and inherent fattiness do well when crisped up. That said, they're also commonly sautéed, where they're handled the same way shrimp are: the more butter and garlic, the better. Given that I'd eat my own toenails if sautéed in garlic and butter, it's probably no surprise that crickets taste damn good when cooked this way.
They're also often used to make high-protein flour, and, as previously mentioned, they are popular in protein bars.
Because they're so high in protein, many people laud crickets as being one of the best foods in the world for you. Says nutrition author Daniella Martin, "You're not just eating muscle. You're eating bones and organs, which deliver calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and zinc. It's like if somebody ground up a whole cow."
Because crickets are so good for you, and also so small (and thus at the bottom of the food chain), many people believe that they are an incredibly environmentally responsible food choice. The theory is that crickets can get you the same protein as chicken or beef, but with a far smaller carbon footprint.
While this is a loudly proclaimed (and very hip) belief to have, the practice is not flawless. Some cricket farms are able to feed their bugs on leftovers from nearby breweries or other food sources, which is undeniably green. But when specific foods (namely the grains that chickens would otherwise eat) have to be fed to the crickets, their protein-to-waste ratio is arguably the same as with more conventional meat.
In the words of Dr. Mark Lundy, of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, "I think the sustainability claims on this topic have been overstated given the current state of knowledge. Insect cultivation is more likely to contribute to human nutrition at a scale of economic and ecological significance if it does not rely on a diet that competes with conventional livestock, but more innovation is needed for this to become a reality."
Given how protein-packed crickets are, it seems like scientists and farmers alike will soon find the optimal way to farm them, so that we can reap their environmental benefits in addition to their nutritional and culinary benefits. Until then, if I ever see a vendor selling crickets as a snack, I'm buying two servings: one for me, and one for my best friend.
There's a great big world out there filled with wonderful, weird ingredients. Check out the wonders of black garlic, get the low-down on why you should add charcoal to your food, and how blood is one of the most versatile ingredients in a cook's repertoire.