Know your edible northern Chinese insects

In China, some bugs are for eating, others are for fighting, and still others are for raising as pets. This is your pictorial introduction to north China’s most commonly found edible insect offerings.

No doubt there are more insects than these on restaurant menus in northern China, but these are the ones I’ve innocently stumbled across during my three years is Tianjin. These are also the ones my students and coworkers say are most common, and the ones they admit to eating.

Insects aren’t the kind of thing people eat everyday, but they do occasionally appear on restaurant menus; they aren’t just tourist food, and this isn’t Guangdong province (广东), where southerners eat freaky stuff for fun. Most of my students have eaten at least one of these. In a large class, and among my coworkers, responses usually range from people making disgusted faces to “Those are delicious!”

(Mouseover the Chinese text to see the pronunciation.)

1. 蚕蛹 Silkworm chrysalises

蚕蛹 means silkworm chrysalis/silkworm pupa — the internet says a chrysalis is a hard-shelled pupa, while a cocoon is a protective covering around a pupa. Picky picky. Anyway, what you need to know is that when they’re deep-fried (炸) or BBQed (烤) you eat the whole thing. At least according to one class of adult students. Another student’s dad fried (爆炒) them at home for the family, but they didn’t eat the outside. They ate the yellow stuff inside, which this student said tastes like tofu and smells like raw meat or fish. Apparently there’s also black stuff inside that you don’t eat. 蚕茧 means silkworm cocoon.

We’ve found these at the Muslim sidewalk BBQ places in our area (pictured above) and at a nearby north-east peasant family style (东北农家) restaurant (below):

2. 知了猴儿 Cicada larva

In Tianjin people call these 知了猴儿,or you can just say 炸知了 (“fried cicadas”). Cicada larva, as an animal, is 知了幼虫。Cicadas, as animals, are also called 蝉。

You can see some fried scorpions in the background.

3. 蝎子 Scorpions

When it comes to food, these smaller scorpions are more common than the big gnarly black ones (shown in the second picture at the beginning). My students have also had 蝎子 in soup, and said it was really good.

4. èš‚èš±(å„¿) Locusts/grasshoppers

As food they’re called èš‚èš±; in a restaurant or at a vendor’s stall you can buy “fried locust” (炸蚂蚱). As an animal they’re also called 蝗虫。Everyone I asked said these two words were the same thing, but they weren’t 100% sure and there was disagreement. I checked four dictionaries and got conflicting answers depending on both which dictionary it was and whether I was searching the English or the Chinese. But whatever — I probably couldn’t distinguish a grasshopper from a locust in English. The important thing to know is that the thing in the pictures that people eat is called 炸蚂蚱。

These aren’t the ones used in cricket fighting (斗蛐蛐儿, also 蟋蟀), or the katydids (蝈蝈(å„¿)) that people raise as pets for their song.

I think I’ve got these straight; let me know if any names are inaccurate or if I’ve left out anything important!

Contrary to the expectations of friends and family, I haven’t actually eaten anyone of these. I sort of got the self-challenge adventure-eating stomach-over-mind insect-consuming impulse out of my system with the cockroach in Thailand, but I suppose if I had an excuse I’d go sample this stuff with someone, just for kicks. Plus, my younger sister’s boyfriend really upped the ante this summer when he ate his way through southeast Asia, so I need to reassert my superiority.

All these photos except for the silkworm chrysalises (蚕蛹) were taken at the Ditan Temple fair in February 2010. The 蚕蛹 photos come from our neighbourhood, taken last week.

7 thoughts on “Know your edible northern Chinese insects”

  1. Wish I was making a trip back to TJ over Christmas :(… otherwise, I’d totally go eating with you. Though, the larvae have always creeped me out… I’m just afraid that they’re gooey inside.

    Coming down south over Christmas? :)

  2. Good luck with re-asserting your superiority. One tip, it’s all in the cooking. I wouldn’t really want to try some of those, but I had Cicada twice. Once at a friends home (his mother fried some up) = tasty…. and once on a stick (bbq) = really foul.

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