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Bug Me: San Francisco Helps Pioneer Insect Cuisine 

Wednesday, Oct 19 2011

Daniella Martin eats 'em up. Yum. Photo by Kimberly Sandie. Hair and makeup by Ellyse Bernales. Animation by Andrew J. Nilsen

Mónica Martínez bills her Don Bugito food truck as a "pre-Hispanic snackeria." A 36-year-old Mexican immigrant with high cheekbones and raven hair, Martínez doesn't have a chef's résumé. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and is, at best, a journeyman cook. Yet her fare benefits from a few authentic, and unusual, ingredients.

The San Francisco resident's tacos are built on handmade tortillas of blue corn masa, and topped with pasilla chiles and a sauce of cilantro, mint, and parsley. Then there's the traditional element that most distinguishes her food.

"The idea of Don Bugito is inspired by pre-Hispanic cuisine," Martínez says as she rolls a moist clump of masa between her hands at La Cocina, a nonprofit organization at 25th and Folsom streets that offers commercial kitchen space and business consulting to cook-entrepreneurs. "So most of the ingredients are pre-Hispanic: peppers; tomatoes; obviously, insects."

Martínez drops a handful of pallid worms, similar to those a child might feed a pet gecko, into a frying pan, where they sizzle and take on a caramel-colored sheen.

Along with crickets and meal worms, these wax moth larvae anchor the menu at Don Bugito, which debuted on Aug. 20 at the San Francisco Street Food Festival. The Mission district event was staffed by 60 vendors and attended by tens of thousands of foodies, reflecting the explosion of interest in street food in the Bay Area culinary scene.

Martínez managed to hold her own with this discerning crowd: By festival's end, she had sold all her dishes. When the food truck commences permanent operations, which she says will happen by next month, it may be the first eatery in the country devoted exclusively to preparations involving insects.

Entomophagy, or the practice of eating bugs, remains a popular culinary habit in developing countries. Residents of the Mexican state of Oaxaca are famous for their taste for chapulines, or dried grasshoppers. In Thailand, Lethocerus indicus, the giant water bug, is consumed with gusto.

But for many in Europe, or countries settled predominantly by people of European descent, the idea of eating bugs triggers a gross-out reflex. Insects and arachnids are not for eating; if anything, they are to be kept as far away from our food as possible. One of the last prominent forays that entomophagy made into American popular culture was on the television game show Fear Factor, where contestants had to prove their mettle by eating live bugs without gagging.

That might be changing. Entomophagy has long been a cultist hobby among entomologists, inspiring offbeat conferences and festivals featuring such dishes as deep-friend tarantulas and cricket jambalaya. Now a small group of cooks and activists is trying to draw a broader audience for entomophagy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the local history of pioneering food fads, a number of them are based in the Bay Area.

"I think it's legitimate to say right now that San Francisco is a hotbed of insect cuisine," says David Gordon, a nationally renowned entomophagist and author of The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook.

Interest in entomophagy has also surged because of advocates' ambitious claims about the ecological benefits of putting bugs on our plates. As the environmental damage caused by large-scale, intensive animal husbandry becomes more apparent — a 2006 United Nations study found that industrial livestock operations contribute heavily to pollution and global warming — insects appear to be an efficient and virtually inexhaustible source of protein. The name of San Francisco entomophagist Rosanna Yau's company and website, MiniLivestock, hints at bugs' potential to solve long-term problems with our food supply.

Despite such enthusiasm, questions persist about entomophagy's widespread viability. With few reliable sources and virtually no distribution infrastructure for edible insects, bugs remain quite expensive, at least when measured pound-for-pound against other kinds of meat. Little is known about the health hazards of food insects, though scientific research in California has found that their knack for absorbing environmental toxins could make them a potentially dangerous treat. At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has almost no regulations for edible bugs.

A more fundamental issue concerns not logistics and health regulations, but culture and cuisine. Is it conceivable that lots of people would ever want to eat bugs on a regular basis? Could crickets be the next sushi, or are they a six-legged flash in the pan?

Before speculating on insects' prospects in the kitchen, it's not a bad idea to establish what they taste like. Daniella Martin, a San Mateo resident who runs a website devoted to insect cookery,, and writes about entomophagy for the Huffington Post, is a helpful authority on this subject. On a recent afternoon, she welcomed SF Weekly to her parents' home in the wooded hills between Menlo Park and Half Moon Bay to sample a bug smorgasbord.

At 34 years old, with green eyes and brown hair that falls just below her shoulders, Martin has the effusive but contained good manners of a stand-and-stir cooking-show hostess. She has worked in marketing and education administration, and discovered her passion for food insects in college while doing anthropological research in Mexico.

In the intervening years, she has pursued entomophagy as a hobby of increasing seriousness. She currently broadcasts a bug-cooking show on YouTube, and is putting together a proposal for a television series that would explore entomophagy in cultures around the world, with an emphasis on cooking techniques.

"What is really needed right now is a cooking show," Martin says, sporting a pink apron and setting up an unusual mise en place of wax moth larvae, bee larvae, scorpions, crickets, stink bugs, and grasshoppers next to the stove. "I don't want to alienate my male colleagues, but [people] need to see a woman cooking bugs and smiling and not being squeamish."

Martin prepares her favorite dish first: a canapé of fried wax moth larvae, diced oyster mushrooms and crème fraîche that she calls "Alice in Wonderland" because of the caterpillar and mushroom elements. Her method of preparing larvae is idiosyncratic: A cardinal rule of bug cuisine is that almost everything, even worms, should be cooked until crisp. "Most people will tell me, 'If I'm going to have an insect, it better crunch rather than gush,'" says Dave Gracer, an entomophagy advocate and food-insect supplier based in Providence, R.I.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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