Chefs mix it up for adventurous diners with worms, ants, scorpions

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Crickets have hopped back on the menu at Toronto's Atlantic restaurant.

Chef Nathan Isberg admits the deep-fried critters are a novelty, but says "there's some people who really dig them."

Strange though it may seem to the ordinary Canadian palate, there are many people who delight in platters of ants, scorpions, worms and even bullfrogs - if they are cooked just right.

TORONTO -

Crickets have hopped back on the menu at Toronto's Atlantic restaurant.

Chef Nathan Isberg admits the deep-fried critters are a novelty, but says "there's some people who really dig them."

Strange though it may seem to the ordinary Canadian palate, there are many people who delight in platters of ants, scorpions, worms and even bullfrogs - if they are cooked just right.

Isberg says some diners may be turned off by the squishy or crunchy delicacies. But for more adventurous types, he's happy to whip up dishes like chili-fried crickets with greens, cricket-fried rice or grilled crickets and jellyfish on a skewer.

The insects were briefly swatted off the menu until an insurer recently gave the OK for their return. Isberg uses rosemary or oregano to spice them up, but admits he doesn't cook them every night, since it takes a while to raise them to the right size.

"If people are particularly interested in it, then I have them available, but they are pretty labour-intensive."

The manager of Toronto's public health food safety program says he has seen crickets, mealworms and other unusual delicacies during his 32 years of inspections.

Edible creatures

Pests usually come to mind when people think of insects at restaurants, but Jim Chan says most bugs are edible if cooked and handled properly.

He's seen frozen turtles in a supermarket freezer, dried snakes at grocery stores and dried sea horses in herbal stores.

Sometimes, even an inspector's jaw will drop. Chan recalls a couple of years ago when a colleague opened a fridge at a Toronto banquet hall.

"There's the head of a deer sitting in the middle of the fridge," says Chan.

A couple of years ago in Toronto's east end, an inspector ordered an operator to open the box she was trying to hide under a kitchen counter.

"There was a whole bag of frogs, live American bullfrogs - those are the big ones. And it was just hopping around. She was going to slaughter those frogs to serve in the restaurant," says Chan.

The deer head and frogs were seized over permit and food safety issues.

Insects are more often served at special events rather than restaurants in Canada. But such cuisine is catching on at authentic Mexican restaurants in the United States, says Jeff Stewart of Creepy Crawly Cooking in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Before, only 10 to 25 per cent of those attending special events he catered would taste insects, Stewart says. Now, it's closer to 75 per cent.

At the 5th Annual Bug-a-licious Insect Food Festival in February, Stewart cooked up cricket candy and white chocolate crickets, Chinese scorpion soup and fresh ant fettuccine alfredo.

"Is it healthy, is it good for you?" asked Stewart. "Yeah, if you look at the nutritional content, they're very good for you."

Still, chefs should check with their sources since wild bugs can be exposed to herbicides, he says.

Stewart and David Gracer of Small Stock Foods made a failed pitch on TV's "Dragons' Den" last year to get investments for their bug recipes.

Gracer, who's also appeared on "The Colbert Report" and "The Tyra Banks Show," is big on eating bugs.

A resident of Providence, R.I., Gracer laments that bugs are hard to acquire, since there's no farming infrastructure for them. Customers are ready to buy them if he can find them, he says.

"I've been able to get large ants that were wild harvested in Texas, and I've been able to get termites from Louisiana, and caterpillars from here and there."

Bugs could help solve the world food crisis, he says, since they require fewer resources to farm than cows and pigs.

"You could feed the city of Toronto with facilities located in Toronto ... You could meet the nutritional needs of the city with insects."

However that might disgust a lot of people, Gracer admits.

His personal favourite? The "wax worm" which eats beeswax and honey is "particularly delicious," he reveals. Stink bugs aren't bad either.

Geographic location: TORONTO, Canada, United States Niagara-on-the-Lake Providence, R.I. Texas Louisiana

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