When people think of Japanese cuisine, most likely sushi, tempura, sake and green tea are at the top of the list — but not edible insects. Surely a modern, developed country with plenty of food choices available doesn’t rely on edible insects? Yet, numerous Japanese folks do choose to eat them as part of their local cuisine — particularly in Gifu and Nagano prefectures.
There’s even a bug restaurant, as well as an insect-eating club in Tokyo that has upcoming events, but before we let you know where to taste these critters — let’s see what’s on the menu!
1. Inago (rice grasshoppers)
Rice grasshoppers, or inago, are found throughout Japan. They are common pests in rice paddy fields. Before World War II, inago were a common food in inland areas. Ask the Japanese and they will tell you that inago used to be a prime source of protein. Especially when located far from coastal areas, in the mountainous regions where fish and shellfish were not abundant and livestock was only farmed on a limited scale. Inago thrives in the rice fields when modern pesticides are not used. Large amounts of the grasshoppers were collected simply by hand or by using nets. This is really smart because:
- Rice grasshoppers are a highly nutritious food (good source of protein)
- Removing them protects the rice (scientists call this mechanical control as opposed to chemical control)
- It’s free (rice grasshoppers are natural resources)
The males can grow up to three centimeters in length and females up to four centimeters. Today, inago are still harvested in the Tohoku region and distributed throughout Japan.
The Japanese will tell you that inago used to be a prime source of protein
Some people find that inago have a nutty tang while others liken the taste to shrimp. Either way, the natural flavor is not very strong. In most places around the world, insects are a savory snack. The Japanese like theirs to taste salty and sweet.
The grasshoppers are usually prepared as tsukudani, (preserved food boiled in soy). They are simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin (sweet rice wine for cooking). When this mixture has been completely absorbed by the insects, they are considered ready to eat. Add more sugar if you like them to taste more sweet or add less to make them taste more salty. The resulting nibbles are crunchy. They can be eaten as a side dish in a main meal and they are excellent as a snack with tea, beer or sake.
2. Hachinoko (wasp larvae and pupae)
Hachinoko are the larvae and pupae of yellow jackets, which are a kind of wasp. The Japanese word hachi causes some perplexity because the term is used for both bees and wasps. And to add a bit more to the confusion, the favored edible yellow jackets, Vespula flaviceps, are actually black and white. The hachinoko are only about one-centimeter long and usually harvested in early November. These wasps are called hebo in the Gifu dialect. which can be translated as “being weak.” Although these wasps can sting humans, they are not very aggressive. The “danger level” of this Japanese insect is pretty much the same as for honey bees.
Hachinoko are particularly popular in Gifu Prefecture. In fact in southeastern Gifu, hachinoko are of major cultural importance. To people there, the larvae do not look like maggots (which are fly larvae, FYI… ). They recognize the difference. But don’t worry, people there will understand if you can’t tell the difference and therefore hesitate to eat it. Both inago and hachinoko are harvested in the fall and people who favor these insects define autumn as the prime time to eat them.
People who favor these insects define autumn as the prime time to eat them.
Hachinoko are also usually prepared as tsukudani. It has a soft flavor and a soft texture. The hachinoko are mixed with steamed rice or eaten as a snack with beer and sake. I have even tasted a raw queen larva. Yes, raw. Sure enough, I hesitated to eat it. But it was surprisingly delicious. The flavor and texture reminded me of creamy vanilla yogurt. If you are a good cook, perhaps you could invent a new hachinoko dish keeping this flavor and texture in mind?
3. Kaiko (silk moth pupae)
Kaiko are the pupae of the domestic silk moth, Bombyx mori. They are the byproduct of silk production. Silk production used to be of major economic importance in Japan and, in fact, is still culturally and economically relevant in the Tohoku region. It has declined during the 20th century. Silk is the fiber that the caterpillars produce and spin their cocoons with. After the silk is harvested for use in kimono and other traditional weavings, the pupae are used as food.
Kaiko tsukudani has a natural flavor that is stronger than that of inago and hachinoko. Some people who are fond of inago and hachinoko do not like the taste of kaiko. Due to the huge biodiversity of edible insects, there is also a huge diversity of flavors and textures.
Where to try it in Japan!
Be sure to try some edible insects on your next visit to Gifu and Nagano prefectures. They can add new flavors and textures to your meal — and a little more adventure. You can also buy many of these insects in the local souvenir shops and onsen that sell produce. Some grocery stores and even supermarkets sell them, as well — don’t be afraid to ask the shopkeepers! It will be an amusing conversation, and you’ll score points with the locals.
Fresh and tasty
Two excellent stores to buy traditional Japanese edible insects are both in Ina City, Nagano Prefecture.
Tokyo bug eating event
This Saturday, there will be a bata (grasshopper) eating event with the Tokyo Bug Eating Club. Grasshoppers are now in season, so it should be pretty tasty. Their website is in Japanese, but here is some info. for the event:
- When: Saturday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m.
- Where: (Meeting place) Takahata Fudo station (Map)
- What: Catch, cook and eat grasshoppers.
- Fee: ¥2,500
- Reservation required: http://insectcuisine.jp/?p=752
- Event page: http://insectcuisine.jp/?p=3153
At the annual Kushihara Hebo Matsuri (Japanese) put on by the Kushihara Hebo Society in Ena, Gifu Prefecture; wasp rice can be eaten and other insects can also be bought. The festival will be held this year on Nov. 3.
There is a restaurant in Yokohama where you can try modern insect cuisine. The izakaya-style Chinjuya (rare meat seller) in the Noge area (near Kannai station) also serves a wide variety of rare and strange meats, like roasted frog and deep-fried salamander.