WOODBRIDGE, CONN. — For Bun Lai, cicadas are mesmerizing to eat, their sweet, bitter flavor reminiscent of walnuts, chestnuts and adzuki beans, and their gently crunchy exterior giving way to creaminess, like a soft shell crab.
Every technique for cooking them “brings out different tones and shades,” he said.
Mr. Lai, 47, is the chef of Miya’s Sushi, his family’s sustainable sushi restaurant in New Haven, Conn. This summer, he is turning his attention to insects.
As Brood X cicadas emerge by the billions in coming months, he will host a series of cicada-centric dinners at his farm in nearby Woodbridge, where he recently shifted part of the restaurant’s operations so he could do outdoor events and cook closer to nature.
Besides being delicious, cicadas align with his mission to encourage diners to eat in an environmentally conscious way. They’re also a part of Mr. Lai’s heritage.
During his early childhood in Kyushu, Japan, his summertime memories included “climbing up trees, following the song of the cicada” to catch one, he said. In that country, cicadas symbolize summer and rebirth.
His mother, Yoshiko Lai, who founded Miya’s Sushi in 1982 and grew up in the Kyushu countryside, said that eating bee larvae was commonplace when she was a child.
Cicadas are consumed in many countries, from Mexico to Thailand to the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are rich in protein, less expensive than many meats, land efficient and because they emerge in outsize numbers, eating them does not tend to harm their existence. Mr. Lai’s hope with these dinners is to pay homage to the global prevalence of cicada consumption while normalizing insect eating in the United States, where the practice is often stigmatized.
“On three different continents, people love to eat insects,” he said. Indigenous people the world over have consumed the cicada. “They didn’t eat it because it was starvation food,” he added, but because it tasted good.
While Mr. Lai enjoyed catching insects during his childhood, he didn’t actually taste one until he attended a 2000 exhibit on insect eating at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He ate steamed rice with crickets. “I thought it was really cool,” he said.
In the summer of 2013, when Connecticut was a hot spot for Brood II cicadas, Mr. Lai — fresh off a James Beard award nomination for Best Chef: Northeast — declared he would be serving them to diners, roasted and tossed in kelp salt. The announcement was widely reported in the news media, but often in a skeptical or disparaging way. “So while our ear drums and gross-out muscles are getting an extra work-out,” one article read, “at least we can bask in the knowledge that we won’t go hungry.” On “Saturday Night Live,” Amy Poehler, then an anchor for the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, said Mr. Lai was “trying to get fired” by serving cicadas.
It was a sensationalizing “of something that holds profound meaning to nature, and to other people,” Mr. Lai said.
And while there are commercial insect products in the United States, many are geared toward masking the flavor and appearance of the bugs, from cricket brownie mix
Mr. Lai plans to serve his cicadas in their whole form — raw, roasted, smoked or boiled — primarily because that is how cultures like his own have enjoyed them.
Because locating cicadas can be difficult — they tend to cluster in specific locations rather than spread out — Mr. Lai’s dinners (five or six, in total) will be planned at the last minute. He recently tried three times to harvest cicadas in Washington D.C., an epicenter of Brood X, succeeding only on his final attempt, when he and two friends, Galina Parfenova and Yordanka Evgenieva, picked thousands of cicadas off trees in Tyson, Va.
On a recent Monday at the farm, Mr. Lai had strung a bunch of cicadas like a popcorn garland to gently smoke over a fire, a technique he learned from Congolese cuisine. These cicadas would go in salad — he compared them to bacon bits.
In another bowl, there was mame gohan, a Japanese rice dish with peas, where Mr. Lai had substituted peas for cicadas to imbue a nutty flavor during steaming. He rolled the rice into boiled leaves of swamp rhubarb and cut them into maki that were pleasantly bitter. He poured a deeply savory broth of kelp and oyster mushrooms over a small bowl of raw cicadas, adding a spoonful of red miso to make a cicada miso soup. Finally, he shaped sushi rice into a pizza and showered it with mozzarella and Parmesan. Just before it was done baking, he covered the top with cicadas, which provided a pepperoni-like crunch.
Mr. Lai isn’t the only chef putting cicadas on the menu. Sean Sherman, who will open Owamni by The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis in June, has been studying cicadas as an Indigenous food source. When he is able to find cicadas, he will turn them into preparations like a crunchy topping akin to pepitas made by caramelizing the bugs in maple syrup, or a sauce with cicadas, chiles and agave. At El Rey in Philadelphia, the chef Dionicio Jimenez, who grew up eating insects in Puebla, Mexico, has served cicada salsa, or blended the bugs into potato soup to add creamy, nutty flavor.
Home cooks can prepare cicadas, too — Mr. Lai suggested roasting them, or sautéing them in olive oil. The safest bet is to harvest cicadas in parks, he added, where there is less risk of lead contamination in the ground. They’ve spent years underground, so harvest them in an area free from pesticides.
While cicadas are a sustainable food, Mr. Lai is also interested in focusing on invasive insect species, like locusts. The cicadas are a gateway, he said. He’s capitalizing on Brood X’s moment in the sun to expand people’s minds about eating more biologically diverse foods.
Ms. Lai, 77, who still cooks at the restaurant, said that when she opened Miya’s Sushi she was told that Americans would not eat raw fish. Now, sushi is ubiquitous. She believes the same is true for insects. Like sushi in the 1980s, they are a centuries-old food tradition that invites derision in the United States.
“I had confidence” back then, she said, that American eating habits would change. And now, so does Mr. Lai.