Are Bugs The New Pork Belly?

A couple years ago, in South Africa, I was served a heaping plate of caterpillars. They'd been sautéed in garlic and onions and so, like just about anything sautéed in garlic and onions, they smelled wonderful. But I couldn't quite get past the fact that they were creepy-crawly caterpillars, so I hesitated to dig in as my hosts looked on. "What's wrong?" they asked me. "Don't you like caterpillars?" "Well, it's just that... I don't know," I answered. "I've never had them. I guess they can't be so different from escargots." My hosts looked puzzled. I clarified: snails. "Eww!" they exclaimed. "You eat snails?!"

And herein lies the issue most people have with edible insects. They simply aren't accustomed to it, while millions more in dozens of countries are. And with good reason: insects are far cheaper and more energy efficient to farm than cattle or other livestock. Not that you'd have to do much in the way of farming given the billions of insects in the world. They're also healthier, by most measures, being high in protein and important minerals, richer in Vitamin B-12, and much lower in saturated fat than conventional meats. It's not necessarily the taste people have trouble with: most insects can be made to taste like pretty much anything. I learned that when I finally took the plunge and sank my teeth into a garlicky sautéed caterpillar. It did indeed remind me of escargots.

"Texture is a big, big, big, big element when you're trying to introduce people to eating insects," says Monica Martinez, founder of Don Bugito, which she describes as a "pre-hispanic snackeria." Really, it's much more: Don Bugito operated a stall at Off the Grid's weekly food truck fest at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, which ran from spring through fall of this year. It also caters events, hosts cooking classes and educational workshops and sells certain products through online retailers like Little Shop Artisan Box, which curates foodie gift boxes out of Bay Area-sourced products (look for chocolate-covered grasshoppers as part of a holiday gift box).

Martinez found her way to bugs through art, as it were. An artist from Mexico City, she was asked to design a mealworm micro-farm and christened the project 'wurmhaus.' Drawn to the idea of eating bugs and the potential it has for alleviating the world's dependency on meat, she began delving into her own country's longtime tradition of eating insects. And, eventually, she started cooking.

Despite the monicker, Don Bugito's recipes aren't traditionally pre-hispanic. Martinez uses queso fresco, for example, which is more typical Mexican. Don Bugito is probably best known for its wax moth larvae-stuffed blue corn tortilla tacos. At Off the Grid, it also served crispy cricket tostadas and toffee-coated mealworms sprinkled on a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Because she is so preoccupied with texture, Martinez rarely has to deal with what she calls that "uncomfortable situation where you take a bite and you're like, 'eww, what was that?'" Interestingly, she has found that certain insects are easier for people to swallow than others. For example, crickets are more readily acceptable than larvae. Could it be that our culture has trained us to find crickets cute? she muses. Perhaps Walt Disney's Jiminy has warmed us to his kind. But those wax moth larvae tacos can warm people, too, she says. The larvae are crispy, like potato chips.

"Psychologically, it's hard," admits Martinez. "At first, even I was like, 'eat worms? No way!' And I grew up in Mexico. Culturally, we grow up being taught that insects are gross and slimy. I don't do much to force people, though. People who come to me are usually ready to try it. They're adventurous or they've heard about us. Or they see the food and it looks yummy."

Read more about eating insects on Food Republic: