Bug Appetit! Insects as Ingredients

Restaurants serve up unusual ingredients, from crickets to grasshoppers.

July 23, 2008— -- Standing in the kitchen of Vij's -- an Indian restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, that's been hailed as one of the finest in North America -- is an unusual and mouth-watering privilege.

At least it was, until some of the newest ingredients showed up.

One of those ingredients is crickets -- little eyeballs, legs and all -- especially yucky when you look at them really close up.

But not yucky to eat, according to Meeru Dhalwala, the restaurant's co-owner and chef. She says that not only do they taste good, they're good for the environment.

"Raising bugs for human consumption is environmentally much, much friendlier than raising cattle, raising chicken, raising pigs," she said, adding that the bugs aren't a replacement for meat, but a supplement.

"I'm not going to be up here and say, you know, that this cricket tastes better than the beef tenderloin that I serve," she said.

Her husband, Vij, the man with the name on the restaurant, says, "Bugs are in."

Health Benefits of Bugs

Nightline visited the restaurant when the crickets were on the menu for the first time. Vij Dhalwala says that diners just need time to get used to the idea.

"Mutton kabobs were the same way," he explained. "People were like, Oh, mutton, I've never eaten mutton. We were the first ones to do it. I don't do it for the fear factor, I do it for the taste factor."

Still…bugs? Why bugs?

"These crickets happen to be way, way higher in iron than beef, chicken, pork, anything," said Meeru. "Much higher in iron. Much higher in calcium. They've got a fantastic amount of protein in them. Super low-fat."

And she says they're not as weird as you might think -- no more strange than prawns, for instance -- which is why fancy restaurants around the world are buying into bugs.

"Like Chex cereal," Meeru said.

But they won't look like bugs when they hit the dinner table. After a swift ride in the blender, they're rolled up, mixed with spices, cooked a little more and served up as "cricket paranta."

The verdict from our taste test was an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

"You're getting the health and the taste," said Meeru.

But getting actual diners to try it -- people who waited in line for some of North America's finest Indian food -- well, that was a bit of a challenge.

When the dish was explained to her, one diner wanted some clarification about the crickets. "The things that move?" she asked.

When Vij confirmed, she said, "No, thank you."

Some other diners also declined to give the crickets a chance.

"Not for me," said one woman. "I think it's the thought of it more than the taste. Black bits. Smashed cricket, no."

To be fair, plenty of people did try it, and for the most part, actually enjoyed it. But in the world of big-time bug eating, crickets are for amateurs.

David Gordon, the author of such tasty reading treats as the "Eat-a-Bug Cookbook" and the "Complete Cockroach," specializes in the really big stuff, and he doesn't believe in disguising his bugs as normal food.

"I like to think of myself as the Martha Stewart of bug chefs," he said.

Gordon really likes eating bugs and cooked up an assortment of crickets, worms, grasshoppers, even scorpions for one wide-eyed group of children.

"We just have this attitude about bugs being disease carriers and all that stuff," Gordon said. "It's our cultural bias. I think maybe the pest control companies are doing too good a job."

David wanted to prove a point with us, as it turned out, a big, juicy point.

"These are marinated and grilled lubbers grasshoppers," he explained.

The extra large grasshoppers, lightly marinated, were grilled for just a few minutes and served up in all their long-legged, bug-eyed glory. That's a departure from the approach at Vij's.

"I don't want people [to see that they're eating bugs]," Meeru said. "I think principally it's the same things, whether you're eating the grasshopper or eating the cricket. But when you're introducing something so different from our cultural mindset, I don't think you just bring the big beast in front of the person."

Gourmet Grasshoppers

In fact, the cricket chef herself was skittish when presented with one of Gordon's grasshoppers.

"I'm not sure I'm ready for the grasshopper right now," she said, laughing. "Sorry, David. Sorry about this!"

Gordon wanted us to each start with a leg, filled with plenty of good white meat, he told us.

So, with the help of a tall, cold beer, we ate the legs. But the body and the head, which Gordon happily munched to bits, that was proving potentially too hard to swallow, even for the good of the story.

Meeru made me feel better by trying and failing in her first attempt. But then she did it, at least part of it.

I'd convinced myself the legs were enough to pull off this story when ABC News producer Alyssa Litoff took a huge bite and shamed me into eating a grasshopper head the size of a peanut M&M.

As it turned out, the grasshopper did not taste like chicken.

"For me it was a texture issue," said Meeru. "The flavor I was OK with. The flavor wasn't bad."

Gordon's enthusiasm aside, skewers of large grasshoppers are not likely to be listed alongside that order of nachos anytime soon. But crickets ground up and served as a delightful appetizer do seem to have their place at the table in a small but growing number of restaurants.

Although just like a hot dog at the ballpark, you might not want to spend a lot of time considering what goes into it.