I used to be terrified of insects. As a teenager, I threatened to move out of my house because there were carpenter ants in the kitchen and, occasionally, grain beetles in the breakfast cereal. Memories of childhood travels to Sri Lanka, where we were served (and ate) maple syrup infested with ants, had grown dim, giving way to fear and disgust of six-legged creatures.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s, and enrolled in a graduate degree program in entomology, that I became aware of the widespread use of insects as food around the world. This new knowledge bolstered my growing fascination with traditional foods and food systems, challenged my Western bias against insects, and inspired an ongoing interest in experimentation with eating local insects. Naturally, when my yard exploded this summer with band-winged grasshoppers, it occurred to me to eat them.
And why not eat the grasshoppers? Grasshoppers are a ubiquitous food source among those who eat insects. At least 30 different species of grasshopper are, or once were, consumed extensively worldwide in as many countries. The nutritional composition of grasshoppers is arguably superior to that of hamburger meat, and they are relatively easy to harvest (and free!). Additionally, grasshoppers are quite versatile for cooking, and there are a multitude of traditional methods of preparation. In some cultures, the cooperative harvest of grasshoppers serves an important mechanism for building community cohesiveness. And significantly, the use of grasshoppers as food encourages many peoples to avoid the use of chemical pesticides in their agricultural fields.
The developed world is experiencing a boom in interest in entomophagy: The United Nations is exploring food security through insect breeding programs, and CABI (Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux International), a multinational government backed science research organization in the UK, is investigating and endorsing the widespread use of insects as human and animal feed. Although insect festivals, often with entomophagy information booths, have become quite popular on university campuses across the United States, there is still little momentum toward utilizing insects as food.
One way to jumpstart this movement is to harvest your own insects—perhaps even in your own backyard.
In early November, my husband and I invited a half dozen friends and their children to participate in a grasshopper harvest in our backyard. November is late in the grasshopper season, and the number of grasshoppers in the yard had dwindled. But there were still enough for a decent yield and, armed with butterfly nets, the children quickly formed a small band of relentless hopper hunters. After some frustrating moments and disappointing escapes, they figured out how to use the nets and caught 25 grasshoppers in an hour and a half. It was wonderful to watch the kids, our daughter in particular, shed their trepidations and joyfully engage in this elemental human activity.
Our processing methods were inspired by traditional techniques utilized in central and southern Mexico where red-legged grasshoppers and spur-throated grasshoppers are collected and soaked until their bitter, perhaps toxic, gut contents are expelled. They are then marinated in lemon juice and spiced with salt and chili. These crunchy critters, known as chapulines, can be found in almost every market and restaurant in southern Mexican cities such as Oaxaca City. They are sold as whole insects as well as powder that is used as a condiment.
We dropped live grasshoppers into an empty jar immersed in ice, which served to numb them (insects can also be frozen completely). Then we lit a fire and placed a cast iron pan on a rack over the fire to preheat it. When the pan was hot, we placed the grasshoppers into it and dry roasted them for about five minutes. They turned a lovely shade of red as they cooked, much like lobsters do. We then removed the pan from the heat and seasoned the grasshoppers with lemon juice, Guajillo chile powder, salt, and roasted garlic.
With the cooked grasshoppers, we made tacos—tortillas filled with avocado and grilled onions and red peppers. Almost all of the children partook of the novel cuisine, including an 18-month-old who was not one bit fazed by the experience. The grasshoppers themselves have a subtle flavor: There is a slight hint of grassiness, but otherwise they take on the essence of the spices they are seasoned with. The texture is pleasant; not crunchy, but not at all squishy. They reminded me of spiced pumpkin seeds.
Grasshoppers are a rich source of many important nutrients, outperforming ground beef in many categories. Grasshoppers provide more energy per 100 grams than soybeans and may contain significant amounts of vitamin B2 and zinc. The fatty acid composition of grasshoppers is similar to poultry and fish: Some insects are even higher in essential linoleic (omega-6) and alinolenic (omega-3) acids.
Nutritional Comparison: GRASSHOPPERS VS. GROUND BEEF (per 100g)
|Nutrient||80% Lean Ground Beef||Grasshoppers|
|protein||25.7 g||20.6 g|
|fat||17.8 g||6.1 g|
|carbohydrates||0 g||3.9 g|
|calcium||24.o mg||35.2 mg|
|iron||2.5–5.0 mg||5.0–20.0 mg|
|phosphorous||158 mg||238.4 mg|
|niacin||4.2 mg||4.6 mg|
Never eat grasshoppers from an area that has been treated with insecticides or may be otherwise contaminated. Grasshoppers will accumulate heavy metals in their exoskeletons, so avoid collecting grasshoppers near mine tailings or dilapidated buildings that might contribute such contaminants to surrounding soil. Keep in mind that bright colors (including black) are indicators of toxic compounds in insects. Pay attention to the plants in the area of your harvest, and do not eat grasshoppers that may be feeding on toxic plants such as datura. If in doubt, remove the head and gut content of the grasshoppers before eating them to minimize the risk of ingesting toxic compounds, or feed them known, edible plants for 24 hours before cooking them to eliminate potential toxins from their gut. Insects share some important chemical compounds with their crustacean cousins, so people with a shellfish allergy should avoid eating grasshoppers. Always cook grasshoppers before eating them; they can carry parasitic worms that can be passed on to humans. Consider removing the wings and legs of grasshoppers, which can cause intestinal obstruction due to their high chitin content. Be a conscientious consumer. Many birds, lizards and small mammals rely on grasshoppers as food, so don’t over-harvest. A good rule of thumb is to leave at least as many insects as you take from any given location.
Although our methods for catching and cooking the grasshoppers were guided by methods utilized in Mexico, there are a variety of traditional techniques employed around the world. Many cultures remove all wing parts, legs, and heads of grasshoppers before eating them. Bodies are then boiled, lightly fried, or roasted, and then either sun dried for storage or seasoned for immediate or later consumption. Once dried, grasshoppers can be stored whole or as flour. In the present-day United States, as in Latin America, many indigenous people continue to rely upon grasshoppers as a regular part of their diet and each group developed its own unique strategy for collecting and preparing them.
In his book Butterflies in My Stomach, Ronald L. Taylor refers to one interesting tactic historically used by indigenous peoples in the western United States. A large pit-fire was built and allowed to burn to coals. A group of people then formed a large circle around the pit and converged on it, beating branches against the ground to drive swarms of grasshoppers into the coals. The already-cooked grasshoppers were eaten on the spot or carried back to villages to be stored for later use.
In eastern California, the Washo Indians are said to have collected grasshoppers in the early morning before it was warm enough to activate wing muscles for flight. Taylor says that the roasted grasshoppers were eaten plain, stored away in bulk, strung on sticks, or ground into a highly nutritious flour to be combined with other foods.
“Grasshoppers take on the essence of the spices they are seasoned with. The texture is pleasant; not crunchy, but not at all squishy. They reminded me of spiced pumpkin seeds.”
Ancient Mexicans not only ate grasshoppers as everyday food, but they also used them medicinally. They reportedly crushed the hind legs of grasshoppers, mixed them with water, and then drank the solution as a powerful diuretic to treat kidney disease or to reduce swelling. Rural people in the state of Oaxaca also use grasshoppers to treat certain intestinal disorders.
There are over 200 species of grasshopper identified in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, most of which are likely candidates for safe, reliable, and nutritious meals. The edible species include locusts as well as spur-throated, slant-faced, band-winged, and some lubber grasshoppers. Not only are these grasshoppers abundant in Baja Arizona, but the majority of the edible species occur during mid- to late- summer when other desert foods sources are becoming scarce. It is therefore difficult to imagine that indigenous populations from the region did not utilize this resource, at least in times of desperation. The absence of written examples of humans eating grasshoppers in Baja Arizona is conspicuous. This deficit may be due to lack of documentation by researchers and academics, or it is possible that early explorers simply overlooked or missed sporadic episodes of grasshopper collecting and eating. In any case, we can certainly take advantage of this food source now.
Exploring the rich history of entomophagy around the world illuminates the reality that our national abhorrence of insects, and our endorsement of chemical warfare against them, is misguided. As my friends and family experienced during our own experiment with wild entomophagy, harvesting and eating insects affords a rare opportunity to interface with our natural environment while promoting our collective food security. And, as we learn about the global reliance on insects as food, we open our hearts and minds to cultures and options we might otherwise dismiss.
Marci Tarre works as an adjunct in biology at Pima Community College. She received her master’s in entomology from the University of Arizona in 2001. Marci and her daughter and husband enjoy life as urban pseudo-farmers, raising chickens and vegetables in their backyard.