I just saw the Top Chef Masters Edible Insect challenge, and it was great! I was particularly interested since I’ll be competing in a similar bug cook-off at the LA Museum of Natural History’s 25th Annual BugFest this May.
The chefs were given five bug-gredients to choose from: earthworms, hornworms, crickets, darkling beetles, and scorpions. Then, with no prior knowledge of how these bugs taste, they were given 20 minutes to create delicious dishes. A challenge indeed!
The chefs chose some very creative ways to prepare the insects. Many of them chose Asian-inspired recipes and salads. The guest-tasters were the stars of Discovery’s wilderness survival show “Man, Woman, Wild”, and on the whole, they seemed to really enjoy the various dishes — particularly Hugh Acheson’s fried tempura crickets with a carrot and sunchoke puree (helping him win $5k for his charity). In fact, there were only two dishes they didn’t really like: George Mendes’ hornworm-coconut soup, and Suvir Saran’s chaat (chickpea salad), which he served with a side of live hornworms. Because of his religious beliefs, he said, he was prohibited from taking a life, and asked the tasters to cook the hormworms themselves, with a hand-torch. Yum. Also, from the very beginning, Mendes was clear about his negative view of insects; perhaps it came through in his food?
Apparently, Curtis Stone, the host of the show, said it was his least-favorite episode.
“I always say this was a good gig, but that part was awful,” said Stone. “I still have memories of biting into the worms and feeling their grit.”
Luckily, I had the chance to respond to this in Monica Gaske’s AOL news article: http://www.aolnews.com/2011/04/03/bug-appetit-celebrity-chef-curtis-stone-to-eat-worms-beetles-a/
The truth is, not all bugs are yummy, just like not all other meat-animals are yummy. Earthworms in particular need to be processed properly before they will taste good. The grittiness Stone experienced was likely due to their still containing remains of their diet, which is, well, dirt. Earthworms move through the soil, swallowing and extracting certain nutrients, and then excreting the rest. They help keep soil mixed, and their digestive process actually helps convert certain organic matter so that plants can assimilate it. They are quite literally little processing tubes for dirt. Usually, it is necessary to boil earthworms for a while to remove the traces of dirt inside them, but after that I hear they can be quite tasty. They are eaten regularly in certain cultures: the Ye’kuana Amerindians of the Alto Orinoco of Venezuela, for instance, eat a very large species they call kuru, which is high in protein, iron, and calcium.
Perhaps if the chefs had more than a few minutes to research these insects and their individual flavors, Stone would have enjoyed the segment more. But given what they had, based on the taster’s reactions, it looked like they did fairly well. I hope I can follow suit in May!