Buzzing: A Brood X special
Hello everyone, how are you? Like the rest of America, I’ve caught cicada-mania: Brood X periodical cicadas are emerging on the East Coast and the Mid-West for the first time in 17 years and this extraordinary event has triggered a creative outpouring that has captured my imagination. I hope you enjoy this special edition.
This week in Buzzing
The emergence of Brood X may be a tipping point for edible insects
The Q&A: Joseph Yoon, Brooklyn Bugs
Test corner: No cicadas 😢 but some mighty fine cricket falafels
Brood X cicadas are emerging after lying dormant in the ground for 17 years. The critters have spent their life underground gorging themselves on tree sap only to emerge, plump and strident, for just a few weeks. They’ll nimble a few leaves, mate and that’ll be it.
A once-in-17-years event obviously calls for a buzz but the US has literally gone cicada-mad: there are Brood X tattoos, Brood X art, Brood X jewellery, Brood X craft beer, Brood X memes, Brood X memorabilia pop-up shops, a Brood X AMA on Reddit. Just search for #BroodX on social media to see what I mean.
But most surprisingly, there is now Brood X cuisine.
Brood X (as in 10 in Roman numerals – although X sounds so much cooler) seems to have timed its emergence to coincide perfectly with the growing interest in insects as food. Native Americans ate plenty of bugs but European settlers disapproved and insects were quickly phased out. Fast-forward 400 years and consumers in America are slowly starting to re-acquaint themselves with insects as food. You can now buy flavoured crickets from Don Bugito, cricket protein bar from EXO, chapulines (a Mexican grasshopper) and sal de gusano for cocktails from Merci Mercado, or you could go for a very fancy meal with insects at the Black Ant in New York City.
I expected to read lots of nature-type articles in National Geographic and the likes, but the culinary hype has caught me by surprise. Many media outlets, including tabloids, have written about the fact that you can eat cicadas and provided tips on foraging, prepping and cooking them. (In short: collect freshly emerged nymphs, or adults from trees; wash, sort, freeze and blanch in boiling water; and you can’t go wrong with sautéing with garlic, chilli and a squeeze of lime. For a full low-down, check out Popular Science. Ecologist Jenna Jadin and self-confessed cicadamaniac also wrote a book of cicada recipes in 2004, which she hopes to update this year.)
The movement has been led by entomologists and chefs already conversant in insect cuisine such as Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs (see Q&A below). Yoon notably prepared an eight-course cicada tasting menu for a journalist from the New York Post: I have never had so much professional envy. The quail-eggs with cicada and hot sauce made my mouth water, as did the kimchi cicada with black rice. (Next time Joseph 😉).
Beyond the online buzz however, what’s exciting about Brood X is that it is a free and freely available food source. I have written before about how expensive insects are, but here is an opportunity for people to collect insects themselves and experiment. There is even an app, Cicada Safari, to work out where to find cicadas: the creatures will only emerge when soil temperature reaches 64F (17-18C), meaning being at the right spot at the right time can be tricky.
I would have loved to be able to travel to witness Brood X. Covid19 restrictions had other designs but I take heart from the fact that this genuinely feels like a tipping point. The amount of coverage Brood X cuisine is getting means you’d need to live in a cave not to have heard of it. This is absolutely essential for people to think it is normal to eat insects, or at least to be open to the idea that insects are food. In psychology, it is called the mere-exposure effect: the idea that people are better disposed towards things that are familiar.
So here’s to tasting Brood II in 2030 – or Joseph’s preserved Brood X specimens next time I cross the pond.
Joseph Yoon, chef & director of Brooklyn Bugs
Joseph Yoon is a trained chef and a passionate advocate of edible insects. His mission with Brooklyn Bugs is to “raise appreciation and awareness of edible insects” in America through outreach. Before the pandemic, this meant events and workshops at museums, shows, conferences and universities. Since Covid however, Yoon has been very active on social media (@brooklynbugs), posting the most beautiful and mouth-watering videos and pictures of insect dishes. The emergence of Brood X has sent him into overdrive: not only has he been out to New Jersey and Pennsylvania on all-night trips to collect cicadas, he has given dozens of interviews to curious journalists (including yours truly) and cooked up numerous Brood X dishes. All images in this section were taken from Brooklyn Bugs’ Instagram account, with Joseph’s kind permission.
What do you make of the extensive coverage cooking Brood X cicadas has received?
I’ve been really pleasantly surprised because [the articles] have really tried to share how to cook cicadas and they have done so in-depth. In previous broods, there might have been late-night or daytime television segments, and people might have mentioned that you could eat cicadas but as the end of a joke, or a punchline: “Oh, you can eat these!” It was very much relegated to humorous shtick.
But to advance the vernacular, we need to demonstrate eating cicadas in manners that have never been seen before and to really recapture the imagination. Ultimately that's what we need: we need to reimagine what edible insects look like and what insect protein can be. Right now we're looking at it as the most basic form of protein - a whole insect or ground up – but there are so many ways to explore insect protein.
What do cicadas taste of and how do they compare to other insects you regularly cook with?
I've only had the nymphs so far, so I don't know what the adults taste like yet, which is amazing and one of the great joys of this: a completely new food. But the nymphs are so fleshy, they’re full of meat. The texture is like a nutty meal and the flavour is a hint of almond. They’re definitely one of the more delicious insects I’ve had because most of insects I cook with are dehydrated, freeze-dried or roasted. Here you have these plump, juicy, succulent nymphs, they’re unlike any other insects I’m used to working with.
I’ve probably done just 1% of the R&D I want to do. It’s been so intense over the past couple of weeks and I’m looking forward to having a couple of days off and then start again with a clean slate: now that I know the basic flavours and functionality of nymphs and adults, what can I do? That’s what I love.
How sustainable is it to forage cicadas? What if everybody went out and did it?
The cicadas’ strategy for survival is quantity over quality and predator satiation. They just come out in mass and there are so many that predators can’t eat any more. Trillions are going to come out so individual collectors won’t make a difference. But if there were commercial enterprises, that wouldn’t be sustainable.
Test Corner: Cricket falafels
Covid restrictions mean I’ll have to content myself with pictures of the amazing cicada dishes Yoon and his fellow chefs are rustling up. Instead, it will be a cricket recipe here at Test Corner, and what a recipe it was!
I absolutely love Levantine cuisine: a table full of babaganush, borek, falafels, grilled halloumi, tabouleh and flat bread is my idea of food heaven. I’ve tried a few falafel recipes over the years and my favourite is Itamar Srulovich’s: the flavour is spot on and I love the fact that he is unapologetic about the fact that falafels should be eaten with fingers, in a sandwich, chin dribbling with trimmings and sauce, preferably at 2am on a balmy Mediterranean night after a night out.
His falafels were just as good in a London kitchen in lockdown, and I felt that their flavour profile would work perfectly with cricket powder. I decided to add 2.5 tbsp of cricket powder to the recipe: enough to taste it and make a difference nutritionally but not so much that it might affect the texture. The result was fantastic: the earthy notes from the crickets really added to the flavour without distracting from it. It was a hit with everyone at home too: lots of thumbs up from the kids, whose mouths were too full except for a muffled “mmmmm”.