By Benjamin Cost
It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
BUGS (错误, cuòwù)
Regions of use: China (most regions), worldwide
Tasted at: Daijiacun (傣家村) // 159 Aomen Road, near Changhua Road (澳门路159号, 近昌化路) // Closest Metro Stop: Changshou Road (长寿路) Line 7
Despite their status as perhaps the world’s most reviled critters, bugs rank among the most universally consumed of the Off the Beaten Palate edibles. From raw witchetty grubs in Australia to fire-roasted Goliath bird-eating tarantula in the Amazon, creepy crawlies are crunched, gooshed, and squelched between the teeth of entomophagists across the globe.
Culinary history/medicinal use
Dried centipedes and scorpions at a medicinal market
While it’s impossible to pinpoint the first instance of a Chinese person exo-skeletonizing a passing crawler out of curiosity, entomophagy has been practiced in China for several millennia, mainly for medicinal purposes.
China’s veritable ancient bug pharmacy encompassed hundreds of species, many of which are highlighted in the over one thousand-year-old Chinese pharmacopeia, Sheng Nong’s Herbal Classic.
Maybe the most revered of bug medicines, cordyceps is a fungus which grows on insect carcasses (namely caterpillars), and was reportedly discovered by Himalayan yak herders 1,500 years ago. They grew keen to its energy-boosting effects after observing that their livestock became increasingly hyperactive after consuming the bug-fostered fungus.
Scholars in Tang Dynasty China (AD 618-907) produced the first written record of its “magical” properties, characterizing the fungus as a mystical part bug, part plant being. Today, its alleged plethora of healing powers, including its antioxidant and anti-impotence properties, make cordyceps one of the world’s priciest medicines.
Lesser known medicinal bugs include ants, which are said to combat rheumatoid arthritis, and centipedes, which Chinese have consumed in the past to treat lockjaw and other conditions.
“Pound for pound, bugs contain more protein than beef,” Man vs. Wild’s Bear Grylls often reminds us before bursting a writhing grub in his mouth. But while our favorite survivalist’s fun fact holds true for the majority of the bug kingdom, bugs’ nutrient properties vary from species to species.
Locusts (who’ve been politicized recently to great effect) prove to be protein powerhouses as they are approximately 50-60% protein while grubs, depending on the species, may pack half that amount of protein but twice the fat at 34%.
Both pose mineral and vitamin benefits in one form or another with locusts containing iodine, riboflavin, and more and grubs housing more potassium as well as A, B, and C vitamins.
A visit to Daijiacun, Shanghai’s premier pest-aurant
During the cab ride over to Daijiacun, the ethnic Dai bug eatery, we couldn’t help but fantasize about what an entomophagy establishment would look like. A dingy shack in an unmapped alley where a leery-eyed hunchback vended loathsome black scorpions the size of rubber Halloween props out of a dried crocodile stomach sprang to mind.
But our Hammer horror flick-inspired speculations quickly dissipated as we pulled up to a brightly-lit auditorium of a restaurant with a gift shop out front, a parking lot for tour buses, and a sign advertising Daijiacun as a premier tourist spot.
Onstage dancers clad in bright Yunnanese garb who giggled and gyrated as half-heartedly as waterlogged worms further ramped up the camp value.
So with our hopes for the grittily authentic culinary adventure we had come to expect on Off the Beaten Palate outings slipping away, we shifted our gaze from the dancers to an ironically less hokey sight: a plate of fried scorpions, ants, bamboo worms, and bee larvae.
Bounty of bugs
Daijiacun offers patrons a choice of two sizes for the bug dish – the big platter to split among a minimum of four people (398RMB) or the smaller plate which feeds around two or three diners (198RMB). Being a small party, we picked the less daunting second option. However, when the plate arrived, it was still heaped with enough scuttlers and squirmers to stuff a family of anteaters.
Deciding to start with the most familiar bug in the pile, we bit into one of the honey bee grubs which was encased in a cocoon of batter. Unfortunately for our insect-intrigued taste buds, the fried crust blotted out any potential flavor and instead rendered each bee a squishy, bland ball. We were reminded of cheap tempura, except without the crunch.
It felt a tad strange to purposefully gorge on a critter that we had so often accidentally ingested while eating a sandwich that had been boarded by these little picnic plunderers. The fact that the ants were mashed together in nuggets of breading so we could see their mid-squirm death poses (like mosquitoes petrified in amber) was also a touch unsettling.
But after chomping the first ant cluster, we realized that similar to the bees, the problem stemmed from their culinary character being too tame rather than too strange. By themselves, the ants burst with a mildly spicy tingle like that of Sichuan peppercorn, though the smothering batter doesn’t allow this essence to express itself.
This is a shame since the ants’ natural seasoning-like character would undoubtedly thrive if they were sprinkled on a duck, or in a soup or stir-fry dish.
The bamboo worms are far and away the most palatable bugs on the plate. Thankfully not entombed in batter, these inch-long squigglers pop with a nutty greasiness that appeases any junk food cravings.
However, just when you believe you could polish off a whole bag of the suckers at the movie theater, the cumulative grease from consuming so many worms starts to coat your gullet – reminding you of how much fat many bugs contain. Moderation is key for the even the dinkiest of bamboo worms.
We were more than a bit skeptical of eating anything you have to shake out of your shoes in tropical jungles – a reluctance intensified by the intimidating sight of the scorpions, which are served with the stingers on.
In fact, the scorpions appeared so lifelike that we feared they’d scurry for the cover of the cucumbers with the poke of an inquisitive chopstick.
Praying that the stingers didn’t still function in their fried state, we hoisted one of the scuttlers by the tail and crunched it whole.
At first, the scorpion’s crispy crustacean-like carapace seems edible enough. But after you penetrate the shell, the scorpion releases an ooze of dark guts which harbor a sour, musty back-taste (similar to the way your hands smell after handling a beetle) that engulfs your molars and remains there for quite some time.
We advise dusting the scorpions with copious amounts of the seasoning salts that mercifully complement the bug dish.
For the most part the deep fried nature of various crawlers snuffs out their natural flavors and health perks (the only bug that needs to be drowned in batter, the scorpion, is left un-crusted).
Overall, the bug dish seems to cater more to tourists, despite the fact that bugs are no strangers to Chinese gastronomy. Gaggles of people hovering around our table laughing and pointing at our platter (with their fingers almost prodding the bugs) only accentuated this point.
Nonetheless, we still recommend taking the trip so you can strike bugs off your culinary bucket list. There are plenty of other restaurants around town where you can order mite-filled meals, so keep your mouth peeled open. Who knows, you might even catch a free sampling of a fly or two to whet your appetite.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Turtle