When it comes to cicada cuisine, adventurous eaters are quick to offer comparisons: shrimp, fried oyster, soft-shell crab.
But when, courtesy of an Oregon Ridge naturalist, I tried them Thursday, battered in Old Bay, they didn’t taste like much of anything: The sort of airy fried snack that I might wash down with a beer before dinner.
I snacked on freshly molted cicadas, which hadn’t yet hardened or fully developed their wings. So, the fried concoction was surprisingly soft and not very meaty. It didn’t crunch or ooze, and canola oil and Old Bay led the way. Naturalist Michael Eversmier also prepared chocolate cicada cookies. And were it not for the cicada shell decoratively placed on top, I might never have guessed cicadas were ground up inside.
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With the cicada emergence near its peak in much of Maryland, talk about the culinary opportunity they present is about as ubiquitous as their shrill song. Some are warming up to the idea of giving them a taste, although plenty others have balked at the suggestion, and are sick of hearing about it by this point. Even though millions of cicadas have already hardened and headed up to the trees, where they buzz and mate, numerous others are still making their way above ground. And shortly after they emerge, they’re the best human food, experts say.
“If you think you’ve missed it, you haven’t,” said Eversmier, a fully grown cicada crawling up his green polo shirt.
The best time to nab them is early in the morning or late at night, Eversmier added, and you should look for cicadas that appear white in color, who have either just emerged from their shells. You can eat them later in their life cycle, but they will be crunchier, and then you may want to pluck off their wings and legs. You should also be mindful about where you find them. Areas exposed to pesticides or other contaminants over the past 17 years are best avoided, and wooded areas and parks might be best.
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You can stick them in your freezer to kill them, then wash them off and start cooking. Eversmier dipped them in a cracked egg and then a cornmeal and Old Bay batter, before dropping them in hot oil for about a minute. Once they cool, they’re ready to eat with your favorite sauce, from honey mustard to sriracha.
Thursday, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. joined in on the fun. His verdict?
“Wow, that’s actually really good.”
A couple of passersby even dug into Eversmier’s cicadas, including 5-year-old Winnie Wenck, who tried a chocolate cookie. Her interest wasn’t exactly surprising, said her father, Jeff.
“She plays with them all the time,” he said. “She just collects them and puts them in our backyard.”
Jessica Fanzo, a Johns Hopkins global food policy professor, said insects are a way for thousands of people around the world to meet their protein and energy needs. In parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, they’re delicacies.
“There’s about 2,000 types of insects that are consumed around the world at different times of the year, but with the exception of Europe and North America, where insect consumption is very low, culturally inappropriate or taboo,” said Fanzo, who tried some cicadas she found in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
But this year’s emergence might be the perfect time for Americans to get over the “ick” factor that might be stopping them from eating bugs. Cicadas, which are high in protein, low in fat and rich in vitamins and minerals like zinc and iron, would be much more environmentally friendly to cultivate than cattle, for instance, since you’d need far less land and water.
“I promise you, eating a cicada is much less visceral than eating a soft-shell crab. So it’s really just kind of closing your eyes and trying it,” Fanzo said.
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In Chinese Shandong cuisine, annual cicadas are often eaten deep-fried, and served up as an appetizer at bars and restaurants. But Alex Xu, a Chinese student studying at the Johns Hopkins University, never tried them back home. So, when he was walking his dog around Roland Park, passing by plenty of cicadas, he decided to pluck the bugs from the trees and prepare his feast.
He decided to soak the insects in saltwater brine overnight. He fried them in hot oil, and seasoned them with salt and cumin. Xu said he’s eaten other insects, namely crickets and mealworms, and found the cicadas fairly similar.
“I feel cicada is pretty bland, so you can pretty much put anything on there,” he said. “They do have the distinctive insect flavor.”
Frank Campanella, a former chef with restaurants such as the Ropewalk Tavern in Federal Hill, said he felt he had to try cicadas.
“This only comes around once every 17 years, so we only have this limited window to experiment and try it out. And so we might as well go crazy with it,” he said.
He took a butterfly net to the azalea bushes in his yard in Sykesville, where numerous cicadas had perched for their molt, and stowed 40 to 50 cicadas in a Tupperware in his freezer.
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Later on, he rinsed them off before blanching them in boiling water. After they cooled, he dipped them in milk chocolate and popped them back in the freezer. The sweet was done, and it was time for spicy. He decided to fry them in a tempura batter and dip them in a sriracha aioli. Next time he’s considering tossing them in an egg roll with cabbage and other vegetables.
“The hardest part of cooking them is those red eyes staring back at you,” he said. “So I like to use them in a way that I don’t have to stare at them when I’m eating.”