Chef Puts Cicadas on Menu (Yes, That’s a Bug in Your Soup)

Chef Bun Lai, Miya Sushi
Chef Bun Lai, Miya Sushi

As people along the East Coast are freaking out about this summer's upcoming plague of cicadas, one resourceful Connecticut chef's motto is, "If you can't beat them, eat them."

Yahoo News: East Coast About to Be Overrun by Billions of Cicadas

For Bun Lai, a 2013 James Beard Award nominee and owner of Miya Sushi in New Haven, eating bugs isn't a gross-out or a gimmick. He's committed to using sustainable foods, and his menu includes ingredients such as foraged wild mushrooms and soup made from seaweed he hand harvests. His sushi contains "trash fish," species that are perfectly tasty and edible but not commercially popular and, therefore, are not overfished. He also supplies the restaurant from his own hundred-acre shellfish bed.

More on Yahoo: How to Emotionally Survive the 2012 Cicada Swarmageddon

"I've been dreaming about putting cicadas on the menu for a long time," Lai tells Yahoo! Shine. "There are billions that are going to happen and they are going to be dying anyway. It's not with joy that I kill any animal, but I'm definitely not a vegetarian."

Male Cicada
Male Cicada

Lai has served insects at his restaurant before and in 2011, he hosted a popular family event at the Peabody Museum that included a cooking demonstration and tasting for kids. He extols the flavor of bugs as well as their small carbon footprint. "If people were less skittish about eating insects, farmers could use a lot less pesticide on their crops," he says. On his blog, he also points out that while two and a half acres of land can only produce 250 pounds of beef, it can produce 2000 pounds of insects.

Lai isn't alone in promoting insects as a sustainable form of edible protein. A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that harvesting more insects for consumption could help improve nutrition worldwide and reduce the environmental impact of farming other types of animals. According to the report, "Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint."

To cook cicadas, Lai draws inspiration from cultures that already enjoy eating insects. While he says the easiest way too cook bugs is to fry them in oil, he points out, "Why take something so inherently healthy and cook it in an unhealthy way?" For a Mexican-style snack, he plans on dehydrating the insects and preserving them in jars. "I would also boil them Maryland crab boil-style, but with Ethiopian spices. Maybe I'd throw in some baby corn. A big pile of spiced cicadas with baby corn would be a beautiful presentation."

Lai was born in Hong Kong to a Japanese mother and Chinese father. "To tip my hat to my own culture," he says, "I'd cook cicadas yakitori style. I'd make a nice teriyaki marinade with local mugwort [a bitter tasting plant used in Eastern cuisine and traditional medicine] and maple syrup and then skewer and grill them."

One person who isn't thrilled about his plans to serve cicadas is Lai's mother. "She overheard me on the speaker phone with someone from the health department and was slightly appalled." In Japanese culture, cicadas are considered a very special insect, and Lai remembers visiting Japan as a child and climbing trees to catch them and briefly keep in insect cages.

He's currently wrangling with the health department as well. "There are regulations about how many insect parts are allowed in grain," he says, "but not a lot of health and safety legislation [about serving insects] outside of the few species we eat."

Lai's cuisine is both a nod to the past and a vision of the future. "Historically, the cicada is an insect that Aristotle enjoyed and the Greeks ate-there is tremendous history in that." When he imagines what the future of sustainable food might be like, he says he'd like to see steak houses replaced with insect restaurants. "To me, it's nothing weird at all."

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