I consider myself a foodie. Not just a foodie, but a food-obsessed individual who’s constantly seeking the most exciting and satisfying tastes. I only have two rules when it comes to food:
- It can’t be alive (that just seems mean… and dangerous)
- It can’t be illegal (no one should be eating an endangered animal in the first place).
I add rules as needed, but generally, I’m down to try almost any food. So, I was put to the test – and Tokyo Survival Channel sent me on a challenge to eat one of the most abundant sources of protein on the planet.
Bugs. Insects. Creepy crawlies. More often associated with phobias than cravings. Looks like my boasting had landed me an opportunity to put into practice the age-old elementary school taunt of “I dare you to eat this.” “No problem” I puffed, secretly starting to dread the long, spikey legs and beady eyes that would soon be my dinner.
I’d read about bugs being the superfood of the future. They are easy and inexpensive to “farm,” provides a huge amount of protein, and compared to raising traditional animal-based protein have a dramatically lower impact on the environment. They are, truly, a superfood that could impact the way humans around the world eat.
The visual, though, is a different story. They look gross as hell. How are we supposed to get over the fact that most of us have spent our lives recoiling in fear from, or stomping on, or spraying these pests? With the exception of bees (the glorious little flower caretakers and honey providers), most insects have a pretty abysmal public image. Trying to convince anyone to eat a bug is a challenge, and a whole meal of insects is almost impossible to imagine for most people.
With such odds stacked against this creepy protein, how, or more truthfully, why, would we eat these things? Knowing the benefits is one thing, but honestly… why would we submit ourselves to a smoothie full of flies on purpose?
This was my challenge. To visit a café specializing in alternative foods to see if these slimy, spikey, squishy creatures could make a satisfying, and most importantly, tasty meal.
Rice and Circus is a café in the maze-like basement of the recently renovated Shibuya Parco department store. The outside looks like a shipping container covered in graffiti and flashing signs. With a few friends for moral support in tow (three omnivores and one masochistic vegetarian), I entered the narrow restaurant lit primarily by colored neon lights. A line of jars along the bar had everything from snake infused liquor to pickled seahorses, and some creatures too spiny, wiggly, and hairy to clearly identify. It felt more like the laboratory of an eccentric chemist than a restaurant.
I ordered every single item on the menu with bugs. The restaurant also offers an impressive variety of things not often found on menus- exotic meats, whole frogs, goat ‘kintama,’ and other novelties- but I was on a mission. Bugs or bust.
In total, we ordered 11 items featuring bugs. Unfortunately, the 12th dish, “Bathynomus Doederleinii Ramen” was out of stock. Bummer.
Also ordered, a single ramune, as a precautionary chaser. I was starting to feel the pressure, and the silly marble soda was like a safety blanket against the coming plague of literal locusts.
Before we could begin our feast, we were gifted with the restaurant’s Otooshi (an obligatory, but not free, appetizer) of a whole roasted sparrow each (300 yen/person). My little cooked sparrow’s head craned up at me, beak agape. A friend’s sparrow’s little claw extended one little toe in a defiant “Eff you” to the table- a bird literally giving us the bird. Since it wasn’t an insect, I placed my shocked looking tiny bird at the end of the table next to my grimacing token vegetarian. If it wasn’t in the phylum Arthropoda, it wasn’t on my radar.
Below are each of the 11 dishes, tasted and ranked. Each dish was judged using four main criteria: appearance, edibility, texture, and, most importantly, taste. Each dish was rewarded an overall score between one and five bugs- one being the lowest score, and five being the best.
To start off the meal, we tried three drinks featuring bugs: one soda, one sour (an alcoholic beverage), and one smoothie. Drinking unpleasant things is slightly easier than having to chew them, so it seemed like the logical place to start. I was pleasantly surprised by the use of eco-friendly straws made from corn, staying true to the restaurant’s mission of sustainability.
Insect Soda – 580 yen
A beautifully colorful drink, featuring a pretty pink to orange gradient and a fresh slice of lemon. Looks just like any other refreshing cocktail with one glaring difference: a big old dead wasp. I turned the glass ever so slightly to provide myself a lemon-guarded slip free from the wasp’s posthumous pool party.
However, my hesitation over the wasp was quickly forgotten. The soda was fantastic. A heavily carbonated mix of ginger and hibiscus mixed with a sweet, slightly syrupy crushed bug mix. I had to do a double take at the menu to confirm the presence of said paste, because it didn’t clash with the spicy ginger or refreshing hibiscus and citrus blend at all. It was an excellent, virgin, soda cocktail.
In my giddiness over the soda, later in the evening I fished out the bug- the aforementioned dead wasp- and popped it into my mouth. I was too confident- the wasp had the last laugh, ‘cause that sucker was gross. It tasted like you’d expect a wasp to taste- earthy, grainy and vengeful.
Pro tip: go for the drink and skip the garnish.
Insect Sour – 680 yen
Very similar to the soda, the only notable difference was less carbonation and the addition of alcohol – supposedly. It was either a very weak drink, or the syrups did a good job covering up the alcohol. Go for the soda.
Insect Smoothie – 680 yen
If the soda was a bug at the beach, then this smoothie was a bug-infested swamp. Legless crickets floated on the thick, purple surface of the smoothie, bobbing around with some small, recently thawed berries. The purple section tasted a bit like yogurt and berries, which was not bad at all, but the much larger green section looked a lot like it tasted… gross.
Amazake (a fermented rice drink) and soymilk couldn’t help the overwhelming graininess of the bug powder mix. It was like trying to drink an unshaken protein powder booster at the gym- chunks and grains of powdered bug bunched next to berries and fermented rice and a mysterious green goop we were never able to identify. The legless crickets didn’t help much- they had the same sad, sand-like flavor of the crushed bug mix.
This smoothie feels like a work in progress. A few ingredient tweaks, a finer bug powder, and a lack of sickly green goop would go a long way.
With the drinks all sipped, it was time to move on to the real deal: the no kidding buggers.
Grasshopper Boiled in Soy Sauce: The first honest to goodness bug of the night. I hesitantly picked up the shiny, glazed appetizer. I was not prepared for the flavor that hit me: the unmistakable taste of pancakes.
I sat chewing in shock, trying to process why my brain was associating a grasshopper with a beloved breakfast treat. Had my previous food challenge involving pancakes rewired my sense of taste? Was I in denial? Was this a sign of an oncoming stroke?
Not quite- within a few seconds I figured out that the combination of soy sauce and sugar glaze mimicked the taste of maple syrup. Combined with the earthy, wheat-y flavor of the grasshopper, it tasted very much like a grainy, crunchy, maple pancake or waffle.
Was I actually enjoying eating these things?
Bee Larva Boiled in Soy Sauce and Sugar – 500 yen
I was expecting these to taste like honey. It’s the only thing I could imagine bee larva tasting like. Aren’t they grown in those little hexagons in beehives full of honey?
Ground pork. Sweet ground pork. It really just tasted like meat. I wasn’t very into it- larva are kind of creepy and small enough to be difficult to eat with chopsticks. Compared to the grasshoppers, this appetizer was a bit of a letdown.
6-Piece Insect Set 1,780 yen
Oh boy, was this a journey. This dish came with its own paper guide and instructional manual, and a pair of small scissors. We’re talking about a hands on, educational culinary experience. This dish features a multitude of insects, so I’m going to go through them one by one.
Quick Note: The small grasshoppers and bee larva included on the plate were the same as the separately ordered appetizers noted above and tasted the same.
This tray was full of some intimidating looking bugs. The giant water bug’s shiny, bulging black eyes looked over the tray into the void. I decided to start with something a little less terrifying.
1) The crickets:
Feeling confident after the tasty grasshoppers, I zeroed in on the crickets. Most of the legs, arms, and whatever other appendages crickets possess had been removed, leaving odd looking grey-brown nuggets.
Thankfully, they didn’t taste as bad as they looked. They would actually make a good bar snack- they have a slightly meaty flavor but taste strongly like popcorn. One of my friends said it tasted just like Peruvian giant corn, aka corn nuts. I think they’d really go well with a beer.
2) The coconut larva thing (Sago worm)
The waitress had explained how to eat the different bugs on the plater when she delivered it to our table. The different types of bugs, the way they were prepared, and instructions on dissecting the big water bug. At the end, with an almost apologetic smile, she pointed to the larva, said “coconut” in English and then added in polite Japanese “It’s better to eat that in just one bite.”
This was, by far, the most challenging of all the bugs to eat. Sure, it may look just like a deflated white turd with a face, but it’s so much worse than that. This stupid little thing offers nothing. Nothing! It is, without a doubt, one of the worst things I’ve ever chewed on. It’s the only bug throughout the challenge that triggered my gag reflex, and only my stubborn pride as a foodie and my ramune chaser got me through it.
The deflated outside had the texture of an old balloon- rubbery and clearly something you shouldn’t chew on. The inside prize of mushy, squishy insides tasted like a garbage bin full of lawn clippings. Eating it was like getting a handful of mud thrown at your face. An intensely powerful aftertaste lingers long after you swallow to remind you of your poor life choices.
No one should eat this bug.
3) Giant grasshopper
This sucker is practically biblical in its size. I was more concerned about the process of eating this one than its taste. Its powerful looking legs seemed like they were ready to vault the crispy bug right off of the table. Trying to figure out the angle to bite into it was tough.
I almost succeeded at eating the dust bowl buddy whole, but one stubborn, very spiky leg jutted out. I politely put my hand up to cover my mouth, and continued to crunch on the hard exoskeleton, like a lady.
My bite of bug shrapnel felt pretty pointless. It really didn’t taste like much. Maybe a bit like old popcorn mixed with spikes. It was also painful. The sharp edges and spikes hurt the side of my cheeks and tongue. It wasn’t disgusting, but it wasn’t worth eating.
4) Giant water bug
The final sucker. The one that came with its own dissection instructions and a pair of nail scissors. To my overwhelming relief, I did not have to eat this one whole.
One of my friends read off the instructions and I attempted to comply. First, we had to spread the wings off of its back. There was something a little grotesque about the action that reminded me of those creepy pinned bug displays you see in natural history museums. Thankfully, the next step was to turn it over, concealing the wings.
Then came the scissors: cut off the bug’s rear, then cut from the bottom up to its “chest.” The instructions then said to make an incision up to the armpit. Armpit? Since when do bugs have armpits? The whole process felt like being back in a high school biology class- I could almost smell the formaldehyde. Who the heck decided to open this thing up to try its guts in the first place?
If that description didn’t make you hungry, this next part sure as heck won’t.
Successful in my surgery, the giant water bug’s insides were open to the world and it was time to dig in. The green goop was a bit difficult to scoop up with chopsticks, but I managed to take my first bite. The result was almost psychedelic.
I was struck by the strong aroma of pear. The goop tasted sharp and medicinal, almost like alcohol. The flavor continued to linger and grow stronger and left an aftertaste similar to candy. The smell filled the table, and everyone was shocked by the taste. Two of my friends got really into it, claiming it tasted like pear schnapps. One friend had the unfortunate experience of getting the wrong scoop of guts and said it was overwhelmingly salty.
So, remember, the next time you’re eating the innards of a giant water bug, green means “go for it” and brown… well, just don’t eat the brown stuff.
*Special note for the 6-bug appetizer. The bugs change depending on the season, so I’m sure there are other creepy crawlies to try.
The main dishes
Fried Whole Deep Sea Creature – 1,980 yen
Alright, so the jury is still out on this one… is it a bug? Is it a crustacean? Is it of this earth?
Here’s why we added it to the challenge: In Japanese, this thing is called an “oogusokumushi,” which translates to “giant beetle.” “Mushi” means insect in Japanese, so that was good enough for me.
Regardless of its classification, I think most of us can agree that this doesn’t look like something humans should eat whole.
We took a moment to clarify with our waitress that yes, we are supposed to eat this thing “konomama,” or, “as it is.” The whole sucker is edible? Alright, then. I squeezed the lemon over the crispy bottom feeder. Like the giant grasshopper, I had trouble figuring out how to eat it, and decided to bite right into its middle, like a sandwich. Holding it up to my mouth, one of its many legs stabbed into my thumb.
That sucker was crunchy as heck. Having to bite through the hard shell and a collection of spiky bits was pretty difficult, but I was pleasantly surprised by the taste. It was salty and savory, and had a flavor similar to shrimp and a little bit like chicken. Overall very tasty, but a literal pain to eat.
Insect Hamburg – 1,280 yen
By far the most normal looking dish of the evening. It even came with french fries and ketchup, much to the joy of the token vegetarian.
The burger looked pretty average, and at a quick glance, you wouldn’t know it’s made from bugs. Once I stuck my chopsticks into it, though, it quickly crumbled apart. The bug mixture was far too dry to hold its shape, and the burger was quickly reduced into a pile of small chunks. The ketchup helped a little bit, but this burger was in desperate need of sauce to help the dryness and a binder to keep it together.
The flavor of the bug mix itself was not bad, but the dish was a bust. The recipe needs some tweaking to make it a better burger, because right now it’d be a lot better served as ground beef substitute. I thought it’d actually make for some pretty decent tacos.
Insect Ochazuke – 480 yen
It’s always nice to end a meal with ochazuke: a bowl of rice, toppings, and tea. Of course, this ochazuke comes topped with the same tasty, sweet grasshoppers that have been a hit all night.
After all of the other dishes, this one felt so mild. I guess having insects floating in your food had lost its shock value. The ochazuke was completely average. With just rice, a single shiso leaf, and a handful of grasshoppers, it was just ok.
Insect Parfait – 1,250 yen
This parfait is very cute. Topped with the same pear-tasting giant-water bug from before, this dessert is more fun to look at than to eat. Too many ingredients clash when paired together: ice cream, jam, dango, the awful green mystery goop, crickets, and a topping of mealworms. The flavor was all over the place. Pure novelty food.
Thanks to the power of google translate, I was able to discover that the green goop that had plagued both the smoothie and the parfait was actually made from chlorella – aka algae. Well, guess that answers the burning question of “I wonder what that nasty looking stuff on the top of the lake tastes like.”
Insect Dango – 850 yen
To end the night on a high note, this plate of insect dango was fantastic. The soft, chewy dango went great with the crunchy bugs.
The first dango combined the bee larva with a little citrus cream- it was very tasty. However, the real star was the dango with the grasshopper. The combination of sweet and salty was so satisfying. The crickets were less of a hit – the meaty, popcorn-like bugs are better as a savory snack and didn’t really go very well with the sweet.
By the time we made it to dessert, I felt like a new carnivore. I was proud of myself for eating all the creepy, crunchy, and squishy things. I was also pleasantly surprised how much of the food wasn’t awful. I was fully expecting to be grossed out by every dish, but only a few really made me hesitate. It was difficult at first, but at the end of the day, they’re just bugs.
Before the meal, my friends and I had discussed going out for “real” food after we were done, but to my surprise we were all (except the vegetarian, for obvious reasons) pretty full. Even more surprisingly, we were satisfied. The amount of protein in these bugs is no joke. I have a much greater appreciation for the potential that bugs have as a food source.
I learned a lot. I’m a total convert on the grasshoppers, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to eat the other bugs again. One friend declared bugs to be “the food of the future!” but quickly added that he still preferred beef. Overall everyone was pretty impressed and enjoyed the experience – but they were split on if they’d bother to eat bugs again.
Bonus: Boss round
As if this assignment wasn’t sadistic enough, I was given the bonus challenge of ordering more bugs from Thailand, the world’s leader in fun bug food.
I ordered two bags off of Amazon.jp. A bag of mixed dehydrated bugs, and a dehydrated zebra tarantula. Yes, the giant hairy spider. Who wouldn’t want to eat one?
The bag of mixed bugs included grasshoppers, mole crickets, silkworms, crickets, and sago worms. The grasshoppers and crickets tasted similar to the ones I’d tried at the restaurant, just a lot dryer and less enjoyable.
The silkworm was new- and pretty gross. The sago worm was the same bug that I hated at the restaurant and dehydrating it did nothing to mask its awful taste.
The tarantula looked intimidating, but once I started to eat it, it wasn’t so bad. It was light and crunchy. The legs were hollow and airy, and the body mostly had the texture of sand.
The worst part was the fine hairs on the outside – they felt pretty strange. It was big and very, very dry, so it took a lot of chewing and was kind of hard to swallow.
The tarantula was supposed to be my “ultimate challenge,” but now that I’ve had the opportunity to try so many bugs, eating it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. After all that practice, I now have a healthy tolerance for this unsightly food source.
Eating the bugs was an interesting experience. If you’d like to try this great source of protein, here’s my advice:
- Try them at a restaurant where they’ve been prepared with other ingredients.
- Don’t be put off by the appearance- the most terrifying ones were some of the most edible.
- Don’t be afraid to give it a try! After all, it’s dead – it can’t hurt you.
Unless it’s a sago worm.