This year's invitation to Kylie Kwong's Chinese New Year banquet promised “unusual delicacies” from a local entomophagist.
For the uninitiated, that's someone who studies insects for human consumption.
When guests called her Billy Kwong restaurant to book, the restaurant manager spelled it out to make sure there was no confusion: “You do realise Kylie will be serving insects?”
Yes, they did. And they came by the dozen – around 50 diners in all – excited, nervous and armed with an appetite and a sense of adventure.
Lucky, because Kwong will be adding bugs to the menu permanently. And she's not the only one. El Topo's Matt Fitzgerald has been serving crickets at the Eastern Hotel in Bondi Junction since his Mexican rooftop bar opened in November last year. Both expect insects to become a more common sight on dinner plates during the next decade, because of their sustainability credentials as a source of protein.
But there are some challenges to overcome first. Such as taste and texture.
Billy Kwong's sold-out Wednesday night 10-course dinner featured crickets, scorpions, meal worms and bee larvae.
“Crunchy, a bit nutty, but a little spiky” says Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2013 co-editor, Joanna Savill, of the crickets. And the bee larvae? “Sweet and gooey … Like a melted lolly.”
What about the whole-roasted scorpion?
“Probably the most challenging. My neighbour described it as forest floor. I'd describe it as herbal, a bit musty and pungent,” she says. “Not something I'd probably seek out again.”
Myffy Rigby, chief food and drink critic at Time Out Australia said the banquet was “delicious, but it was definitely a case of mind over matter”.
“The scorpion was large. It took a few chews,” she said, adding that mostly they “just tasted like crisp, deep-fried things”.
The honey bee larvae had an unexpected flavour.
“They taste more like bees than like honey,” Rigby says. Not that she's ever eaten a bee.
“It's hard to say that something tastes bee-like but it didn't taste like steak or chicken,” she says, pausing to gather her thoughts.
“The bee larvae was like a sweet little squish,” she offers finally.
It turns out there are some dishes even a food critic has difficulty describing.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist and food writer Jill Dupleix described the sensation of a mouthful of crickets as “curious”.
“They were a bit too close to cockroaches for my liking, but they tasted good, like salt and vinegar chips and nuts,” she says.
“I was happy there weren't any arachnids, though. That might take a therapy session or two to be able to match to my pinot noir.”
Favourite dishes aside, Dupleix, Rigby and Savill agree on at least one point: we should get ready to see more insects on the menu in future.
“We need to use all available food sources if we want to feed everyone in the world, not just those looking for a new dinner thrill,” Dupleix says.
“At least these ones were dead and beautifully cooked. I've eaten live Amazonian ants before – quite citrusy – and they're a bloody nuisance, running all over your tongue.”
At El Topo, the dish of roasted crickets flavoured with chilli, garlic and lime is so popular "every second table or so has them".
“We're actually looking at putting on another traditional dish from Oaxaca that uses wasp nest and eggs," Fitzgerald says.
"I couldn't find wasps but I found bee larvae."
Both Fitzgerald and Kwong insist edible insects are not on the menu just to create a buzz (excuse the pun). They source their insects from local entomophagist Skye Blackburn, who says there are close to 1500 kinds of edible insects in the world, including grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies and even cockroaches.
“We don't want the bees there just to be different, we want it to be an integral part of the dish,” Fitzgerald says.
“It's a bit about authenticity … the insects are something that a lot of people over there [Mexico] eat.”
The only insect from the banquet that Kwong will not offer on a permanent basis are the scorpions, since they are not sourced locally. She admits the dish of roasted scorpions, served with Sichuan chilli oil on a bed of deep-fried silken tofu, is “quite a spectacle”.
“I've never seen so many iPhones come out once that [scorpion] dish hit the table,” she says.
Kwong says she couldn't have eaten an insect a couple of months ago but gradually overcame her fear through learning more about edible insects and their role in a sustainable future.
"After learning all that you think, what are we doing? Why aren't more people eating them?"
Critters on the menu
Sustainable they may be, but cheap they are not. A kilo of crickets will set you back around $120, meal worms $100 and fly pupa $80, according to entomophagist Skye Blackburn.
Billy Kwong now offers a range of edible insect dishes as part of the restaurant’s specials. Dishes, which will change from time to time, may include:
- Crispy meal worm and salt bush cakes, three per serve, $19
- Crispy prawn and cricket wontons with sweet chilli sauce, four per serve, $21
- Stir-fried crickets with black bean and chilli, $32
- Stir-fried yabbies with dried scallop, chilli and cricket sauce, $42
At El Topo, a snack-sized serve of roasted crickets with chilli, garlic and lime is $6.