As It Happens·Q&A

Bug appetit! Why some chefs are cooking up a storm with Brood X cicadas 

Trillions of cicadas are emerging from beneath the ground this spring, which means Joseph Yoon will have plenty to cook. 

‘They're really a beautiful canvas to absorb and take on a lot of different flavour,’ says Joseph Yoon 

A warm spring salad prepared with cicada nymphs from Brood X, from Brooklyn Bugs. (Brooklyn Bugs/Instagram )

Story Transcript

Trillions of cicadas are emerging from beneath the ground this spring, which means Joseph Yoon will have plenty to cook with.

Cicadas are noisy, red-eyed insects that exist in 15 populations worldwide, known as broods. They spend the majority of their lives underground, happily feeding on tree roots. But when it's time to breed, they come out in swarms. 

Right now, Brood X — named for the Roman numeral 10 — is emerging for the first time in 17 years across 14 states in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South.

And some chefs are seizing the opportunity to try some tasty new recipes. 

Joseph Yoon is one of them. He runs the website and social media channels Brooklyn Bugs, where he raises awareness and appreciation for edible insects. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Joseph, if I was to come over to your place for dinner tonight and you wanted to convince me that I should eat cicadas, what dish would you serve?

I would actually want to ask you first what your favourite dishes are and what kind of flavours you love. And then I would try to incorporate the cicadas into your favourite dish.

I like anything roasted or sauteed.

What about Italian, Asian, American? Like, what kind of cuisine do you enjoy?

Mostly Italian.

I would like to sauté some of these cicada nymphs with aromatics — with onions and garlic to start. And I like to keep building the flavours and add some herbs, maybe some like rosemary, thyme and sage and start building these flavours.

And then I would like to add some tomatoes and make just like a nice ... ragu or Bolognese sauce that we can then put on top of our bruschetta and finish with some basil or parsley to give it a nice spring finish.

Chef Joseph Yoon refreshes a display of the different edible bugs available for lunch at the edible bug festival Brooklyn Bugs in New York City in 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

What are some of your other recipes with cicadas?

I plan on really trying to preserve the cicadas and work with them for the rest of the year. And I'm probably going to be making over 100 dishes — unique dishes.

I've also been experimenting with fermenting and pickling the cicada nymphs as well. So that's been really interesting to make a kimchi with the cicadas. 

I also made this, like, really beautiful cauliflower, leek and potato cold soup. And I sauteed the nymphs very similarly with onions, garlic, chilli peppers and just really developing flavours. Because they're really a beautiful canvas to absorb and take on a lot of different flavour. So I just thought that was, like, a really beautiful way to celebrate and really try to make seasonal dishes.

At the various stages of life, they change, right? I mean, you've got the little nymphs, but eventually they get a kind of a casing around them. So do they get kind of crunchy after a while?

Right now in the nymph stage, they're very much like a boiled shrimp with the skin on. And I don't know if you've ever tried eating them, but a lot of Asians that I know, we just kind of eat the shell as well. And so it's like a very thin layer before you get to the meat. So the nymphs are very much like that right now.

Then when you get to the adult stage, yes, it's going to have an exoskeleton. And the best time to collect them is early on because their life pivots from eating for 17 years and living underground, to mating. And they don't eat again once they become an adult. So if you catch them sooner, they'll have more muscle mass, more fat. And they'll start depleting their fat and muscle and become more hollow and more chitinous, if you will. The chitin is their exoskeleton.

So if you catch it sooner on, then you'll just have more meatiness to your cicada. With the exoskeleton, I kind of think, like, there's going to be great ways for me to roast it and then to be able to create powders with it. And when you have an insect powder, the possibilities are just endless.

A costumer eats a cicadas taco at Cocina on Market restaurant in Leesburg, Va., as Brood X cicadas emerge from the earth after 17 years. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

You mentioned shrimp and so many things that I love to eat. And yet when I think of eating cicadas, it seems revolting to me. Why do you think that's the case? Are we just conditioned? 

I really love you asked that because, you know, eating is such a status symbol. And when you think about the American palate and you think about eating at, like, a wedding or fancy events, people often think about beef, filet mignon and lobster and stuff like that. And they think of insects as kind of like, "Ew, that's like for poor people or the end of the world."

But that's like the furthest thing … from the truth. Because over two billion people around the world regularly eat insects. And to many people, it is a delicacy and a treat. 

And so I think a really big thing is that people think in terms of extremes when it comes to eating insects, because they think of insects as the thing that they don't want in their apartment, the thing that bites them in the summertime, that ruins our gardens. But what I want to do is I try to re-imagine and redefine edible insects, something that's sustainably farmed or harvested for human consumption, something that's nutrient-dense.

And with over 2,000 different types of edible insects, think about all the incredibly wildly different flavour profiles, the different textures from crunchy to squishy and everything in between, and also the incredible functionality of how many different ways we can start utilizing it. I just really think that we're missing out on something that can be both sustainable, nutritious and also delicious.

There's a now famous cookbook called Cicada-Licious [by Jenna Jadin]. It was created the last time the cicadas emerged in such numbers 17 years ago. How much more popular is the idea of cicada cooking now than it was when that first came out?

That was before the UN's FAO, Food and Agricultural Organization, issued their 2013 report, "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security." And that really exploded the Western world imagination of just like, "OK, so we should consider eating insects."

So 17 years ago, it was more of a novelty. It was maybe included at the end of articles and journals and news pieces about cicadas, kind of like a butt end of a joke.

And now the narrative has changed where people are thinking about their lifestyles and how they can make a better impact on sustainability and towards environmentalism. So I think that awareness is completely different. And the appreciation for, like, why we should even consider eating insect protein has evolved tremendously in that time.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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