Monday, July 19, 2010

First Up, First Serve - Silkworm Pupae!

Alas, this review is not for the weak of heart, or of stomach. In my intrepid explorations of the land of cuisine, I somehow happened upon entomophagy, the practice of eating insects. After a brief spurt of exploration learning about it, and a few days grossing out my elders with the facts I learned, I discovered a place to find canned insects - something I'd like to try before moving on to breeding my own. Silkworm pupae seemed large enough to remove the ick factor, since if they're big, you can pick out the guts. It also so happened that I came across the knowledge of the existence of canned silkworm pupae. So, armed with this information, I went down to my local Korean foods retailer and picked up a can. It was relatively cheap, for an exotic food, at $2.10 for a 130g tin. All in all, a price well paid.

After getting home and finally finding the time to open it, I pulled the can out of the cupboard and with a little difficulty, pried the lid off (Under closer inspection it seems that the lid was designed to remain attached to the can at one end... Also note that the lid is on the bottom of the can.). The smell was not exactly pleasant. I've read it being described as old clothes, but quite frankly, it didn't smell at all like that to me. To me, it smells a sort of savory scent, though not perhaps an enticing one, with a hint of spiciness. Behind this, the faint scent of cinnamon also lingers. Additionally, to my disappointment, these were not in fact giant silkworm pupae as I was expecting, but little, pint-sized ones. If you need an idea of size, the typical giant silkworm, or the agave worm, is what you get in a bottle of mezcal, ranging from two to five inches in length. As a pupae, this would average about one to three inches in length. These pupae were well under an inch, averaging about half. So much for the images I saw of pupae fitting on skewers.

Summing up a small amount of courage (Though my curiosity is really what took over.), I fished one out and popped it into my mouth. It was very juicy, slightly salty and tasted heavily of MSG, with perhaps a touch of white pepper. It also had a rather pasty texture, kind of like ricotta cheese. The shell was not at all crunchy, but slightly leathery instead. The 'sauce', as one might call it, was not at all appetizing, so I popped the little chrysalides (Yes, that's the traditional plural of chrysalis) into a bowl of hot salt/sugar water to soak out the flavor. I also lost a couple down the sink by accident when I was draining them. No worries. There's a hundred and ten more right there. Sadly, the smell still lingers, so I think I'll have to replace the liquid later. In the meantime, I pulled out a paring knife from the kitchen drawer (I'm using these dishes and utensils with permission, heh.), and selected three fine specimens to split open. The first, I cut along the spine. Unfortunately, even though the knife is recently sharpened, the shell is somewhat slash-resistant. Apparently, these pupae were very much in the center of their metamorphoses, as their flesh seems to be an absolute mess, with no discernible organs or meat. Just gray pasty stuff. Upon slicing a pupa across the torso, into three parts, one can easily identify a single organ running down the center, from about the head to the middle abdomen. I have no idea what part that is. Also, please do excuse my poor knife skills - these poor buggers are very squishy. Note to self: Sauce smell gets annoying.

Despite the fact that bugs are low in fat, these feel incredibly greasy after touching them - I have the suspicion it's added in the canning process. Anyway, last, but not least, I slice the bug lengthwise from the side, separating it into top and bottom. As you can see in the photo... Ah, scratch that. You can barely identify anything. I fed these chopped up bugs to my dog. She took them, appreciating the gesture, but by her reaction I judge that she did not enjoy them very much - and this is coming from a dog that eats almost anything. Alas, however, do not set these delicacies aside just yet. I have not prepared them, and this is just as is. My current intent is, after letting them soak just a bit further (About two hours, which is not nearly long enough.), I'll roast them in the oven to make them crispy, and roll them in cinnamon and sugar. They should make a good treat, then, stuck on little toothpicks. As for instructions, well, I'm soaking them in about a cup of water with a tablespoon of salt and three of sugar, replacing it every half-hour. Once they're soaked, I'll roast them in the oven for twenty minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit). While watching them roast, I noticed that during the later stages a few of them start popping, bouncing around here and there. It's an amusing show. Don't be surprised if some of them fall off the tray, heh. Be careful when taking them out, as they will continue to keep popping even whilst out of the oven. I decided to let them cool for a little while... They also turned out a little burnt, however, because of the sugar I left on the tray from cooking my plantain chips earlier. Whoops.

Oops! Someone forgot to take a photo here! Sorry.

Now, putting them on the toothpicks was certainly a challenge, for some of them shuddered and broke in two at the mere thought of being impaled by a tiny wooden spear. I did, with great difficulty, manage to stick about two thirds of the buggers. As for how they taste, well... Let's just say that I overcooked them a little. Probably the best time to take them out of the oven is when the first one pops. They still taste vaguely like the sauce that they came in, though sweeter on the outside, being dipped in cinnamon sugar, and this time, they actually taste like cinnamon. Once you get to chewing them, they're a touch salty, which makes for an interesting flavor. Some of them are actually a little on the chewy side, so the burnt ones might just be because of the sugar. Hard to say. All in all, not bad, but I may wait a little while before I try something new again, though my dog certainly approved of the end result (That's not much of an achievement, to be honest.).

As a detailed analysis, fresh from the can:
Appearance: 2/10 (F)
Not at all appealing. The sauce was thin and murky, and well, full of bugs.
Smell: 4/10 (E+)
Some points for complexity and the undertones, but it was far from pleasant, though bearable.
Flavor: 3/10 (E-)
Bland, and strangely flavored, unsuited for any food, really.
Texture: 7/10 (C+)
A surprisingly unique texture, and not altogether unpleasant, though it loses points for sticking in your teeth.
Total: 4/10 (E+)
A very poor food indeed! Could have had potential.

Alternatively, after my poor preparation:
Appearance: 5.5/10 (D+)
I cannot disguise the fact that they are bugs, although it looks otherwise appealing.
Smell: 3/10 (E-)
What smell? THAT smell? Dear god.
Flavor: 6.5/10 (C)
Cinnamon sugar is good. But that weird flavor from the sauce still lingers, and it's a little burnt.
Texture: 6/10 (C-)
Pleasingly crunchy, though some of them were incessantly chewy. I'm not sure why.
Total: 5/10 (D)
Palatable. I had to force myself to eat them all.

As this was my first post, I don't expect people to find it that great, but it's my experience at entomophagy, heh. Honestly, I don't know when I'd be posting on here, but if I find something new or amusing, I'll post it here for the masses to see. For those of you that just happen to see this post, however unlikely, I ask you to dare me to eat various unusual foods that I have probably never heard of, and I shall oblige given all necessary means and possibilities! And I'll post an in-depth report on exactly what that weird food was and how I got along with it. Just, uh, make sure it's actually a food. I don't want anyone daring me to eat toe-jam or something like that.

After a little research, I discovered that this food, known in Korea as Beondegi, is a very popular snack. Apparently, however, even after being canned, it's supposed to be boiled or fried before being consumed. Perhaps I'll give them a proper try later, when I finally bother translating the writing on the can. If you intend on trying it yourself, don't be surprised if it's labeled as 'fish feed' or 'bird feed'. It's just really bad Engrish at work.