Q: Why do grasshoppers hop?
A: Because it is too hot in the frying pan.
HAHAHAHAHA. Get it?
I made up this joke when I was in elementary school. Seriously. I did. I thought I was so clever, but no one laughed.
I guess not many kids eat grasshoppers.
My friend JJ Walters is preparing for the collapse of civilization as we know it. Part of his survival plans will include harvesting wild plants, animals, and insects. So when he asked if we ate insects in refugee camp, I was prompted to write this post. While I don’t have first-hand memories from that time in my life, I do remember harvesting grasshoppers in America.
There are plenty of people in the world who incorporate insects into their diet on a regular basis. And why not? It is a sustainable and nutritionally dense food source. The thing is, if your parents have never introduced you to entomophagy before now, you probably won’t be too keen on the idea. You know, that whole cultural ick factor. But if you’re willing to expand your mind (and your palate) a little bit, it might just save your life one day.
My dad is a fan of the occasional roasted cicada. If he finds one or two on a tree, it will become a rare and delightful snack. Family friends gift him with wasp nests to throw on the grill. The larvae have a mild nutty flavor.
The Shire has always provided us with a bounty of fruits and vegetables. It also offers a cornucopia of insect species. As you probably guessed, it takes a lot of them to make a dish, even if this dish is considered a condiment. There are several types of jaew in Lao cuisine. Some have a paste consistency, like jaew bong, and others are more of a liquid sauce. Jaew is always spicy and served as a condiment with sticky rice.
In Laos, a popular additive to chili paste is pulverized giant waterbugs (Lethocerus indicus), locally known as jaew maeng da. Waterbugs have a very distinct flavor that is hard to describe, rather pungent if you ask me. I don’t care for it at all. When my grandfather lived with us, this was one of his favorite things to eat. There was a tiny bottle of maeng da extract in the refrigerator just for him. I always thought you had to be a grown up to enjoy it. But now that I am grown up, I’m not sure that’s true.
Mok kai mot (say that three times fast) is another rare insect dish I recall eating at some point in life. It consists of ant eggs seasoned with coconut milk and spices, steamed in a cozy little sleeping bag of banana leaves. Quite nice, actually. Rather like a savory mousse.
I don’t have a recipe for grasshopper paste (jaew thak-thaen) but I vaguely remember what’s in it. Sorry, I know you’re disappointed. The main ingredient is, of course, grasshoppers. I have this memory of walking through the Shire with my uncle and mom, using a net and catching them by hand. They were the fat, green and black ones that remind me of Jiminy Cricket, even though he’s a cricket (but why is he green??).
Next step: freeze the grasshoppers. Entomology students will agree that this is the easiest and fastest way to, ahem, incapacitate insects without damaging the specimen. Once you’re sure they won’t hop back out, into the frying pan they go with a little bit of oil. They should not become reanimated, as my joke would suggest. Saute until crispy.
Using a mortar and pestle, you grind them up with some chilies, a little fish sauce, and other seasonings. The result tastes a lot like jaew made with alternate ingredients, like dried fish. You would never know you were eating grasshoppers, except for the stray legs that don’t seem to grind up well. I bet a food processor would take care of that.
These days, I’m quasi-vegetarian but could be convinced to eat well-prepared insects. I wouldn’t eat them purely for sensationalism, like that one guy on the Travel Channel. My plan for the apocalypse is to pack up and go to my mom’s house, and I’m sure part of her survival plan would include harvesting insects. Just like old times.