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I ate fried caterpillars—and so can you

Illustration for article titled I ate fried caterpillars—and so can you

This past week, I decided to try my hand at cooking a new meat: caterpillar. To my surprise, I found the caterpillars in question, waxworms, easy to cook and quite tasty. If you've been thinking about trying bug-eating yourself, this is a project you can try at home.


I was inspired to give this a shot after talking to Daniella Martin, entomophagy advocate and creator of Girl Meets Bug, for the piece "Should you really start eating insects?" Martin recommended that curious newbies try frying up waxworms, the larvae of wax moths. She even has a recipe for waxworm tacos.


I've had insects at a restaurant before in the form of chapulín tacos at Washington, DC's Oyamel. While it was by no means a bad experience, I didn't find the texture or the woodsy flavor particularly appealing. I was curious to see if waxworms were more readily accessible to my American palate.

So, I present: How to Eat Fried Waxworms.

Martin recommended the vendor San Diego Wax Worms for consumable caterpillars. There may be less expensive places to get waxworms—and these were not cheap. A 250-count of caterpillars ran me $9, plus an additional $6 for shipping. But Martin recommended this vendor in particular because the farmers feed their waxworms a diet of honey and bran. (Different farmers feed their caterpillars different grub, so be sure that you're comfortable with whatever is going into your waxworms' bodies.) A lizard-owning acquaintance also warned me that waxworms are not the healthiest of bugs. Lizard owners view them as "candy bugs" because they are both delicious to lizards and high in fat.

But I paid my $15, and, a few days later, a cardboard box arrived at my doorstep, with holes cut in the sides and stuffed with newspaper. Inside, was a small container filled with sawdust and live waxworms. Hooray!

Waxworms, fortunately, aren't a particularly gross bug, looks-wise. They're almost cute in a "I'm going to eat you" (no, really, I will eat you) sort of way. These guys were definitely moving, which is important. You don't want any dead bugs or any decay. In retrospect, I probably should have picked through the caterpillars right then and there to see if there were any dead ones.


One thing I did not anticipate: the smell. The waxworms themselves don't smell, but they arrived in sawdust, and sawdust smell immediately calls to mind images of pet stores. The moment I ditched the sawdust, this wasn't an issue, but it did momentarily put me off the idea of eating these squirmers.

The next step was simple. I just popped the whole container into the freezer. The UN's report on edible insects notes that there hasn't been conclusive proof of insect pain, but recommends killing methods that "reduce suffering" like freezing or quick-killing shredding. Martin advises leaving the bugs in the freezer overnight. I left mine for a few days.


The day I planned to cook the waxworms, I put the container in the fridge so they would thaw a bit. Then I picked the caterpillars out of the container and put them into a bowl. I found a few that had apparently been squished and dead a while (like I said, I should have checked for dead caterpillars when they first arrived), and I put those aside. Once I had a sawdust-free pile of waxworms, I rinsed them off and seasoned them.

Illustration for article titled I ate fried caterpillars—and so can you

One thing I particularly liked about handling the waxworms was that it felt a lot cleaner than handling raw bird or mammal meat. Certainly I washed them thoroughly, as I would fruits or vegetables, but I didn't feel compelled to wash my hands every five seconds like I do with chicken.

I may have overseasoned the waxworms. Martin said to treat them like taco meat—and perhaps I was a bit nervous that they would taste bad—so the bugs got olive oil, salt, cumin, cayenne pepper, and whatever else was within arm's reach.


After browning some sliced up shallots, I added the waxworms to my frying pan. As the caterpillars cooked, they straightened out, and a few started popping in the pan. (I suspect a few were still slightly frozen.) I kept stirring until the exteriors of the waxworms turned translucent, and then removed them from the heat.

Illustration for article titled I ate fried caterpillars—and so can you

Despite my ridiculous seasoning, I decided to keep my tacos pretty plain: corn tortilla, salsa, waxworms. And how did they taste?

To be honest, I couldn't tell you. The waxworms took on the flavor of the shallots so readily that it was hard to distinguish the waxworm flavor from the shallot flavor. I can tell you that they have a wonderful, crunchy texture. My lovely camera-wielding assistant (who preferred not to appear on camera) described them as having a texture akin to the bubbles you sometimes find on potato chips. I can see how they qualify as "candy bugs." They would make a delicious snack food.


Next time I try to make caterpillars, I would definitely leave them a bit more naked to get a sense of the waxworm flavor. But texture-wise, they get a big thumbs up, as ingredients in a taco or on their own.

Coincidentally, Tech Feed's Fact or Fictional show recently did a segment on food to eat during the zombie apocalypse, and came up with a much more attractive waxworm recipe with quinoa and vegetables:

So if you've been dying to try some sort of buggy food and aren't put off by the price tag, waxworms are a good place to start. Give it a shot, and see if it makes you an entomophagy convert.


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Annalee Newitz

You make them look really good — now I'm going to have to try some wax worms. Though I suspect sauteeing them in shallots is key to their wonderfulness. I won't lie — I could probably eat cotton if it were sauteed in shallots.