Insects Get a Tasty Makeover

Finding a bug in your meal is usually not a pleasant experience. In a popular restaurant in L.A., however, creepy crawlers are becoming haute cuisine.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, no more turtle soup. How about a nice bug instead?

A U.N. agency says insects are the answer to a hungry world. Now a few folks with a taste for bugs are trying to create a U.S. market. Good luck.

Here's Ki-Min Sung's report on one restaurant in Santa Monica with insects on the menu.

KI-MIN SUNG: Typhoon is the perfect setting for a romantic dinner. Generous windows open up panoramic views of the city. Single-engine planes take off from the airport as the sun makes its descent.

Mr. ERIC KNOTTSLIG(ph): My wife and I had our first date here.

SUNG: That's Eric Knottslig, who came with his wife, Carol Lemly(ph). I asked him, did they order one of the pan-Asian restaurant's signature insect dishes that night, scorpion on shrimp toast, chiambi(ph) ants, deep-fried sea worms?

Mr. KNOTTSLIG: I don't think so.

SUNG: But after a few visits they decide to experiment with the Taiwanese stir-fried crickets.

Ms. CAROL LEMLY: They're kind of tiny crickets. And as long as they're spicy and crunchy, they're just kind of an interesting condiment in the dish.

SUNG: Restaurant owner Brian Vidor got the idea to put bugs on the menu while traveling in Asia. There he overcame Western taboos about eating insects.

Mr. BRIAN VIDOR (Owner, Typhoon): We are all raised about how yucky bugs were. Not in Asia they weren't raised. But everybody here goes oh, yuck-pooey.

SUNG: One of the foot soldiers in battling yuck-pooey attitudes is science writer and insect cookbook author David George Gordon.

Mr. DAVID GEORGE GORDON (Author, "The-Eat-A-Bug Cookbook"): Bug-eating is becoming more and more of a popular thing.

SUNG: Voluntary bug-eating, that is. Eating insects is already inevitable. Americans inadvertently consume about a pound of insects a year, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates how many bugs are allowed in our food.

Mr. GORDON: You know, I absolutely love wax worms, and they're - we call them worms. We call everything that wiggles a worm.

SUNG: Gordon has long touted the health benefits of insects and their smaller carbon footprint. Some dried insects have twice the protein of raw meat, and he says some insects are just down right delicious.

Mr. GORDON: And what I do is oftentimes I'll freeze them and mix them with cookie dough and I make white chocolate and wax worm cookies.

SUNG: Could there be Ben and Jerry's wax worm cookie dough ice cream?

University of Virginia Associate Professor Jonathan Haidt says we're just not ready.

Professor JONATHAN HAIDT (University of Virginia): It would take a lot of work to get Americans to lose their queasiness and their disgust at insects. If there is any sort of movement or any sort of environmental reason to get Americans to eat insects, I think it's extremely unlikely to succeed.

Mr. PATRICK DURST (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization): We recognized that it's not for everybody and it's best to apply it in places where it's been part of the tradition, part of a culture.

SUNG: That's Patrick Durst with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He put together the Insect Eating Summit held last week in Thailand. Instead of changing hearts and stomachs in the West, they focused on countries where insect-eating is already a part of the culture. They're now working on ways to understand and modernize insect cultivation.

Mr. DURST: The insects are collected from clean environments out in the forests or they are reared and raised in hygienic surroundings. They are actually a very good and healthy food source.

SUNG: Back at Typhoon in Santa Monica it was my turn to try. I chose the waterbug. It's about the size of my palm. I sat down with owner Brian Vidor for the taste test.

What's the best way to eat this then?

Mr. VIDOR: I'd go head first.

SUNG: Okay, here I go. Head first.

(Soundbite of chewing)

SUNG: It's chewy and crunchy. I like the salt kick.

Mr. VIDOR: That's right, because it goes good with beer.

SUNG: It's was just kind of hard to imagine the eyes and the legs and insect parts kind of rolling around in my mouth.

So I did it. I'm not sure when I'll do it again, but I savored every cutinous(ph) crunch.

For NPR News, I'm Ki Min Sung.

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