David Alpher was living in Alexandria the last time Brood X cicadas came out of hibernation. He grew up Australia and indulged in honey ants in Mexico, where insects were considered food and “not something you did on a dare.”
Alpher tried cicadas with his neighbor, taking off the wings and legs, and sautéeing them in butter. He noted the importance of overcoming the “Western palate” and stigma of eating a bug, especially when cicadas taste like a shrimp-textured pistachio.
Brood X cicadas, one of the largest groups of cicadas, have been living underground for 17 years, sucking up sap from tree roots, and now they are ready to resurface and mate. When the soil reaches a consistent 64 degrees, cicadas will emerge across Northern Virginia for around 8 weeks to mate and lay eggs that will set the foundation for the next cycle of Brood X cicadas about 17 years from now.
Cicadas could almost be considered a flying superfood that is high in protein, roughly the same amount per pound as red meat, low in fat and carbohydrates, and naturally gluten-free.
This year, you won’t find cicadas on the menu at restaurants in Alexandria — serving bugs is a health code violation and isn’t allowed in Virginia. But for the adventurous, there are a lot of ways to cook cicadas at home.
Brian Schwatken, who lives in Alexandria, cooked and ate a cicada a few years ago — and liked it.
“I would actually choose to eat them again,” he said. “I was shocked. I did not expect them to be so good.”
Schwatken was sitting around his backyard firepit with a friend a few years ago, discussing that summer’s brood of cicadas. Having recently read an article about cooking and eating cicadas, Schwatken decided to dig one up and fry it.
“It’s not the cicadas you see flying around and crawling on the trees,” he said. “You want the ones that have just emerged from the ground because they’re more tender.”
He fried the young cicada in olive oil with garlic in a cast iron pan on his backyard gas grill before cutting it up and popping it in his mouth. “It had a firmer texture than I was expecting,” Schwatken said. “Kind of like a steak, but oh my gosh, it was incredibly flavorful! If you could imagine, it was like a nutty steak.”
Prepping to eat cicadas isn’t as simple as digging them up and blending it into your favorite smoothie, but a meaty process of tenderizing.
They are best eaten when they are newly hatched tenerals, before their exoskeletons turn black, but those who are allergic to shellfish should not partake. These young cicadas can most easily be found on the ground in the early morning.
According to the cookbook Cicada-licious, written by Jenna Jadin and the University of Maryland “Cicadamaniacs,” Jadin recommends gathering the cicadas while alive and placing them in the freezer, then boiling them 4-5 minutes and blanching them.
Removing the legs and wings, as well as tenderizing cicadas in Worcestershire sauce before sautéeing them, can soften the females and weed out the males, which tend to have the least amount of substance.
When looking for ways to incorporate cicadas into weeknight meals, Cicada-licious looks inward for local inspiration with dishes like Old Bay Cicadas, party favorites like cicada dumplings, a new topping for pizza night, and a quarantine favorite: banana cicada bread.
You can also swap traditional dishes using grasshoppers for cicadas, such as this arroz verde, to intertwine rich flavors with home grown (or found) ingredients. A coastal rendition of scallop and saffron risotto indulges in the flavors of this “soft shell crab of the dirt” whilst allowing time to “contemplate life and death as cicadas briefly crawl around in risotto before succumbing to their now-slightly creamy fate.” Even our favorite sweet treats can’t hide from the cicada invasion, like this Missouri creamery, coating cicadas in chocolate and churning them into your favorite ice cream flavor.
Chocolate, deep frying, and alcohol can make anything taste better, but alcohol can make even the most sober mind forgot what they are drinking. Cicadas-infused liquor can create deep secondary notes of nuttiness without adding additional syrups, like Room 11’s cicada-infused bourbon for a twist on an old fashioned. Kramer’s in D.C also plays into the insect’s natural peanut butter taste, serving their cicada cocktail with Jack Daniels, amaretto, cream and topped with candied cicadas.
And, for the especially adventurous, topping a few deep-fried cicadas onto a Bloody Mary couldn’t make a bartender’s favorite brunch drink any worse.
If you aren’t the type to cook new recipes at home, several restaurants in the District may have cicadas on the menu, including Oyamel, which has historically served grasshoppers on their diverse, Mexican cuisine menu.
For this year’s cicada invasion, Schwatken plans to put his cicadas in a taco.
Alpher, who is probably in the same boat as many, will not partake at the expense of his wife’s disdain for cooking bugs, even if they are delicious dirt shrimp.