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A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paints an ugly picture of the environmental impact of our nation's love for beef. Cattle requires 28 times more land, 11 times more irrigation water, five times more greenhouse gas emissions, and six times more nitrogen fertilizer in comparison to the per-consumed-calorie environmental costs connected to dairy, poultry, pork, and egg production.
But before you switch to one of those other four animal sources, consider this: crickets consume 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Pound for pound insects are also rich in "good fats" -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids -- and are high in calcium, iron, B vitamins, selenium, and zinc. Combine their nutritional content, their plenitude (1,700 of the 1.1 million species of identified insects are edible), and the ease of "farming" bugs for food, and it's no surprise 80 percent of the global population counts insects as part of their daily diet.
Yet entomophagy, the consumption of insects and their eggs, larvae, and pupae, struggles against a cultural "ick factor" here in the United States. Still regarded as an adventurous "poor man's food" only eaten by "others" for sustenance, insects have yet to make significant inroads onto the plates of the average American diner. And that's a shame.
One imagines, however, edible insects could follow the example of arthropods like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, which were once regarded as unseemly trash food and are now treasured for their taste. Here in Southern California, insects can be found on restaurant menus if one keeps an open eye (and mind). They're especially enjoyed for their unique and desirable flavors refined over generations by cultures unaffected by an irrational fear of protein-rich critters. Several insects are served recognizably whole, while others are disguised and incorporated into dips, soups, and even infused into beer.
Angelenos should consider themselves blessed with a variety of entomophagical options available across various cuisines:
Cliff's Edge: Ant beer
For the next two Wednesdays, seasonal produce-inspired bartender Matthew Biancaniello will be serving an unusual under-the-counter libation: beer brewed using crushed ants and an unusual insect-based sweetener. The beer's fermentation process is fed using lerps sugar, a crystalline honeydew substance of sugar and amino acids produced by tiny insects called psyllids; a healthy serving of crushed ants collected from local gum trees are added into the concoction to impart the strange brew with a lemony flavor. SoCal foraging and wild food specialist Pascal Baudar is providing Biancaniello with a few bottles of the primitive fermented beer seasoned with insects to serve patrons at his weekly pop-up at the Silver Lake outdoor bar. The result is a surprisingly delicious effervescent alcohol that tastes of a citrusy-sour hard cider with a splash of champagne.
3626 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
La Sandia: Grasshopper guacamole
Richard Sandoval's Westside outpost serves up southern Mexico-style guacamole made to order with onions, tomatillos, cotija cheese, red chile cascabel powder, cilantro, and lime, and finished with sea salt and a healthy topping of sun dried chapulines -- grasshoppers. The leggy insects add an addictive crunchy texture and nutty flavor to the creaminess of avocado. Summer and autumn months are considered prime chapulines season amongst Oaxacans, who also frequently enjoy the insects toasted and seasoned with garlic, lime juice, and salt.
395 Santa Monica Place, 305 N, Santa Monica, CA 90401
NIGHT + MARKET Song: Waterbug dip
Imagine nam prik as the salsa of Thai cuisine, a spicy chili mixture normally accompanying fish and vegetable dishes as a saucy sidekick. Chef Kris Yenbamroong's newish Silver Lake outpost spikes its nam prik with mashed giant water beetles (the magnificent Lethocerus indicus, to be exact), giving the condiment a slightly metallic-anise flavor, but otherwise unrecognizably entomological in nature. Currently offered alongside perfectly succulent-crisp fried chicken on the restaurant's specials menu, nam prik maengda is the perfect "you didn't know it, but you just ate a whole bowl of bugs" surprise.
3322 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026
Mok Maru Jong Sul Jip: Silkworm pupae soup
This anju/sports bar has something for everyone on its menu. (The spot is technically a smoker's paradise "patio" extension of next-door neighbor Piper's Restaurant.) As you peruse the TGI Fridays-ish offerings of BBQ baby ribs and mozzarella sticks, Mok Maru Jong Sul Jip quickly reminds you that you've ventured deep into Koreatown with the appearance of a spicy beondegi soup. This chili-infused stew is generously populated with pungent segmented silkworm pupae, served like a great many Korean dishes within a bubbling stone cauldron. Each spoonful greets the palate with the characteristic earthen scent and flavor of a bug raised on a diet of mulberry leaves.
222 N Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004
Guelaguetza Restaurant: Grasshopper tacos
The "Chapulines a La Mexicana" plate combines sautéed fried grasshoppers with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and chilis, adorned with stringy locks of quesillo, a mild Oaxacan cheese. Fill warm, handmade corn tortillas with a healthy spoonful of the buggy mixture, squeeze a bit of lime, add a slice of avocado, and the squeamish may find themselves quickly converted to the flavorful attributes of the critters in their tacos.
3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006