Recent studies have been suggesting that the human race would be far better off adopting an insect diet in order to preserve the environment. However, anytime we see a culture who partakes in edible insects they always look incredibly unappetizing.
Why is insect the one food that people refuse to cut up when eating? When I order a salad the restaurant doesn’t toss a head of lettuce on my table, and yet order a plate of crickets and it’d be a miracle if they even pull the antennae off before serving.
Still, if mass insect consumption is on the horizon and chefs refuse to make them not look like insects while eating, we’re going to have to get used to it. That’s exactly why a couple of our writers, Felix Sayaka and Ikuko Kawamura went down to Nong Inlay in Shinjuku to try out some caterpillars along with some other dishes out of the Shan State of Myanmar.
■ Nong Inlay
The Shan are an ethnic group of around 6 million people living in various parts of South East Asian, but mainly Myanmar. One small group of these people came to Japan and work at the Nong Inlay restaurant, which was founded in the Takadanobaba area seventeen years ago and has been serving their unique dishes to Japan ever since.
The owner has been living in Japan for 33 years now.
■ Bamboo Borers
In addition to a variety of their cultural dishes, caterpillars, crickets, and cicadas were also on the menu. Our writers opted for a plate of caterpillars this time around and thought it best to limit themselves to one insect dish per visit. Actually these bugs are known as bamboo borers because they live inside young bamboo shoots feeding off it until they emerge as moths.
This was of no concern to our reporters, however. As they waited for their dish they couldn’t help but be reminded of the meal worms you buy in the pet store to feed lizards. Felix envisioned the gory mess of guts and slime that would explode in her mouth upon biting one. She kept her cool by reminding herself that the Shan eat this all the time and it was no big deal. Why can’t she?
As the server approached with a plate of fried bamboo borers the women squinted their eyes, the way you do when you know the killer is about to jump out and murder someone in a slasher flick but don’t want to see it full on.
In this way, the bamboo borers looked just like a plate of potato sticks. However, as their eyes relaxed and regained focus, the caterpillars’ little heads and legs became visible. After that it was impossible to see the potato sticks ever again.
■ Crunchy with a hint of grass
Felix and Ikuko sat looking and smiling politely at the fried worms for longer than they should have.
However, the worms didn’t vanish into thin air as they had hoped. It was go-time and those bamboo borers weren’t getting any more delicious just sitting there. They cringed into the first bite and found them surprisingly crunchy. Not only did the eruption of guts and goo not happen, they were actually hollow inside.
Realizing that these were not at all horrible, they began popping more down trying to pin down the flavor. According to the restaurant staff, the preparation simply involved salting and frying. The bamboo borers had a unique taste that if you had to put into a single word it would be “grass.”
In fact, as the women got more accustomed to the caterpillars, the only flaw they could find was that the salt was a little too strong. They would probably ask for less if ordering again. Beyond the salt though, the aroma of fresh cut grass seemed to waft to the back of the mouth and up to the nose for an odd but not unpleasant little touch.
■ Good for a snack
Upon asking the Shan staff at the restaurant, they learnt that bamboo borers aren’t eaten everywhere in Myanmar. They also aren’t a part of the regular diet of many Shan people. Mostly they’re good for a quick snack or to give to children as a healthy alternative to sweets.
Today too, they were just the appetizers for some more standard Shan cuisine. Ikuko ordered the Mutton Curry. It had a good smell and didn’t taste too spicy. Overall, it was very delicious.
Felix ordered some Shan Soba, noodles made from gluten-free rice flour. This gave the noodles a very soft, gummy-like texture that was exquisite.
The Shan Soba was available with a side of pickled foods and some Shan Tofu. The Shan Tofu was lightly fried to be crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside.
All in all it was a highly satisfying dining experience, right down to the caterpillar heads. If you’d like to try some bamboo borers yourself, our reporters recommend going in a group of four or five people. Even though the two women were rapidly throwing down caterpillars one after another, it gradually felt like eating a lot especially with more food to come.
In the event of a worldwide food crisis where we all have to resort to eating water bugs and scorpions, it might be good to start getting acclimated now. Nong Inlay is a great place to start. Get your toes wet with some potato-looking caterpillars then work your way up to the crickets and cicadas all the while enjoying some delicious Shan dishes as well.
Address: TAK11 (1F), 2-19-7 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Access: JR Takadanobaba Station, one minute from the Waseda exit
[ Read in Japanese ]