Cicadas Are Here. Time to Eat.

Cicadas Are Here. Time to Eat.

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Over the next six weeks or so, a trillion cicadas will emerge across the Midwest and Southeast for a brief, raucous, once-in-a-lifetime bender.

“What an incredible time,” said Joseph Yoon, a particularly exuberant bug enthusiast who will hit the road and forage for the insects as they tunnel up in a mass emergence of two regional broods not seen since 1803. “The romance! The kismet! The synchronicity that this is all occurring in my lifetime!”

Mr. Yoon is a chef who promotes an appreciation of edible insects through his business Brooklyn Bugs.

For his ramp and cicada kimchi, he leaves the insects whole and intact in their crackling shells so they’re slowly permeated with a spicy fermenting juice, and serves it with a wobble of soft tofu and warm rice. He fries cicadas to make tempura, folds sautéed cicadas into Spanish tortillas with potato and onion, and bakes cheesy casseroles with cicada-stuffed pasta shells.

In the United States, eating insects is often sensationalized, trivialized or framed as a source of cheap protein for an end-of-the-world scenario. But for about two billion people who regularly eat insects around the world, it’s one of our oldest and most ordinary foods.

“I like to think of cicadas as just another ingredient,” Mr. Yoon said. “Like lobster or shrimp.” In fact, cicadas are so closely related to lobster that the Food and Drug Administration has issued reminders to avoid them if you have a shellfish allergy.

“They’re both arthropods,” said Tad Yankoski, an entomologist at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “But only one’s a luxury, why is that?”

Mr. Yankoski enjoys cicadas in a scampi-style pasta dish with a sauce made from butter, white wine and garlic. (“Pretty much anything you can make with shrimp, you can make with cicadas.”)

He compared the texture of a cicada to that of a tiny soft-shell crab — a gentle crunch that yields soft meat — and described a mild woody flavor that develops during the years the insects spend growing very slowly underground, feeding on sap from tree roots.

Andrew Jack, a private chef in Chicago, cooks with grasshoppers, ants and their larvae, and other insects, but said he finds the quality of these ingredients in the United States to be extremely unpredictable.

“Yes they’re high in protein, but that gets exaggerated as a talking point,” he said. Cicadas also contain fats, carbohydrates and a number of organic compounds, providing a complexity that makes them more interesting as ingredients.

The emergence is a rare opportunity for Mr. Jack to get his hands on fresh, high-quality cicadas at their peak and to see how they develop umami. He will travel to rural Wisconsin to forage, then grind cicadas down, salt the mash and let it ferment much like a shrimp paste.

Every time periodical cicadas arrive in the United States, they bring a sense of wonder with them — their long intervals underground and their perfectly timed mass emergences are fascinating, even to experts.

“We still don’t fully understand some of the core aspects of their biology,” said PJ Liesch, an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin. Though there are theories about the insects counting the years through the compounds in tree sap, soil temperatures and their own underground communication, none manage to completely unravel the cicada’s mystery.

Scientists do agree that you can cook a cicada at any point in its life cycle and, as long as the insects weren’t burrowed in soil contaminated with chemicals or pesticides, they are entirely safe to eat.

When foragers choose to capture and cook cicadas during this emergence is a matter of taste and timing.

The hunched, hard-shelled, butterscotch-colored nymphs that first emerge from the ground are easy to scoop up as they scurry. Wait awhile and they burst from their little exoskeletons as soft, white-winged tenerals.

If the cicadas gathered as tenerals aren’t cooked right away or put on ice, within a matter of hours they go through another growth spurt, shifting into adults. Their bodies darken and harden, and they focus on finding a mate somewhere up in the trees.

You can catch cicadas there for weeks — they sing so loudly, they’re pretty hard to miss. But those who’ve cooked them over the years pass along one bit of advice: If you want to get a good taste, act fast. The longer you wait, the less meaty the cicadas will be.

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