Bugging Out with Insect-Flavored Cocktails

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

By Tim Ebner, photography by Jennifer Chase

“You ate what?” “I would never …” “Ewww, gross!”

These are just a few of the responses I typically get when I tell people that I love to eat bugs.

While you might consider grasshoppers, crickets, ants or worms to be common household pests, many people around the world have developed a taste for edible insects.

When cooked and seasoned carefully, bugs exhibit extreme earthy and bold flavors. Sometimes there’s even a lingering taste of the land from which they came—dare I call it terroir?

Bugs are increasingly becoming an essential part of the human dietary habit. Already people in more than 130 countries eat insects often as part of a meal, and anyone who’s traveled to Mexico knows that chapulines (grasshoppers) are considered to be a delicacy and Oaxacans anticipate griddling up flying ants, called chicatanas, every spring when they swarm after the first rains.

In Washington, DC, bugs are also increasingly showing up on food and drink menus, especially at Mexican-themed eateries, like Oyamel, Poca Madre and Tequila y Mezcal. At these restaurants, especially behind the bar, insects take on a life of their own—an essential ingredient that can add new flavor dimensions to a summer cocktail. 

Hibiscus Margarita with Sal de Gusano

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Columbia Heights has a new mezcal bar called Tequila y Mezcal and it just opened just in time for summer, serving Oaxacan dishes as well as tacos and cocktails inspired by century-old cooking traditions.

On most nights, the husband-and-wife team of Chefs Dio Montero and Mirna Alvarado (of Taqueria Habanero fame—also in Columbia Heights) oversee a rapid-fire production of tacos on the grill, including one off-menu item, grasshopper tacos, that only in-the-know patrons know to order a la carte.

Especially in the south-central regions of Mexico, all sorts of bugs, including worms, are eaten regularly. As larvae, they become a tasty byproduct known as sal de gusano (worm salt), which for many in Mexico is a prized possession. You might see it as an additive to a sauté or folded into the making of hand-pressed tortillas. It’s also served in a small bowl alongside a sip of mezcal—just pinch some of the salt to taste, then sip slowly on the mezcal for a smoky aftereffect, says William Martinez, general manager of Tequila y Mezcal.

“You can taste the slight saltiness and you can taste the roasted flavor too,” Martinez says. “I would say it’s almost like eating a sunflower seed as a bar snack.”

Worm salt is also a sustainable way to help mezcal and tequila producers. That’s because this bug’s larvae typically feast on the roots of the agave plant, and since Aztec civilization people have hand-picked the pest to save the agave. When cooked and roasted using a comal, the larvae plump up into a protein-laden snack, or can be ground and combined with rock salt and dried chile peppers to make sal de gusano.

For the at-home bartender, worm salt is an excellent flavoring agent that can be used to replace plain old salt for margaritas. Bartender Israel Mendez shares a recipe that calls for mezcal and comes spiked with the tart and floral notes of hibiscus. To find a jar of sal de gusano, he suggests importing it directly from Oaxaca (a few companies on Amazon.com import the salt) or check your local organic or Mexican market.

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce hibiscus simple syrup
1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (for simple syrup and garnish)
Lime wedge (for garnish)
Sal de gusano (for garnish)

To make the hibiscus simple syrup: Bring 2 cups of sugar and water in a saucepan to boil, stirring occasionally. Remove the saucepan from heat, then add a cup of hibiscus flowers, allowing the mixture to steep for at least 5 to 10 minutes and continuing to stir occasionally. Strain the mixture, keeping only the simple syrup.

To make the hibiscus margarita: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, lime juice and hibiscus simple syrup. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and dip the rim in lime juice, then onto a plate of sal de gusano. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the cocktail mix, garnishing with a lime wedge or slice and a dried hibiscus flower.

Oaxacan Orange with Gusano Rojo

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Gusano rojo (not to be confused with a popular Mexican brand of mezcal) literally translates to mean “red worm,” and it’s another inventive take on a worm salt that adds spice and heat to a cocktail that’s bursting with fresh citrus flavor—the Oaxacan Orange.

The cocktail is a specialty at Oyamel in Chinatown. Beverage director Alan Grublauskas says it’s one of the most popular drinks on the menu, and he bets very few people know the drink comes lined with the restaurant’s house-made worm salt, ground with Oaxacan sea salt, chile de árbol pepper and a common Mexican spice, Pasilla de Oaxaca Flakes.

“Then we add the red worms—gusano rojo—to bring out the orange color in the salt,” he says.

His fondness for bugs doesn’t stop there.

“We typically like to ask people how adventurous they are,” Grublauskas says. “Because, here, you can sample everything from worms to scorpions, even grasshoppers.”

Aside from the sustainability benefits of eating insects, Grublauskas likens the taste to eating potato chips, but better.

“You can roast this bug in a mixture of salt and spices, and it really transforms into something extremely tasty. I think many people’s minds are shifting, and they’re venturing toward insects,” he says. “You can eat them whole or you can grind them down into a variety of different salts that work really well as a garnish or finish.”

Cocktail ingredients:
1½ ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
½ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur 
2 ounces sour orange juice 
Gusano rojo (for garnish)
Orange wedge (for garnish)

Sour orange juice ingredients: 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
½ cup fresh lime juice

In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, Luxardo and sour orange juice. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and first dip the rim in lime juice followed by gusano rojo. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the mix, adding an orange wedge (rim dipped in extra gusano rojo) if you prefer.

Charlie and the Chapuline Factory

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

With a cocktail named in honor of Willy Wonka, you would expect a drink that’s outlandish and fun.

But without looking too closely at the cocktail menu, Poca Madre patrons could soon be in for a sudden surprise if they order the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory.

The drink comes garnished with a grasshopper and combines the earthy flavors of ground-up peanuts and grasshoppers for an earthy sensation.

“We blend up the grasshoppers with our peanut syrup. Then we purée and strain it,” says Amin Seddiq, Poca Madre's beverage manager. “You get this distinct earthy flavor, with a slight saltiness, because the grasshoppers are cured in salt and lime.”

The drink is a classic take on a sour cocktail, but it has both thickness and texture thanks to the peanut-and-grasshopper syrup.

And if you think grasshoppers are still somewhat of a novelty in the United States, you better guess again.

Seddiq says recently these critters have sprung onto grocery store shelves, including at MOM’s Organic Market in Ivy City.

Preserved insects, like grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms, are for sale by the ounce, or you can try a variety of pre-packaged snack bars and chips seasoned with insect powder.

“I think grasshoppers really are one of nature’s original proteins,” Seddiq says. “So many cultures have used them for centuries, and it adds such an interesting flavor component to the drink.”

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce lime juice 
1½ ounces peanut syrup
Egg white from 1 egg

Peanut and grasshopper syrup:
3 ounces peanuts
¼ ounce grasshoppers
1 cup sugar
1½ cups pineapple juice
1 stalk lemon grass, roughly chopped
1 chile de árbol pepper, roughly chopped

To make the peanut syrup: Wrap the lemongrass and chilies in cheesecloth. In a saucepan, bring the sugar, grasshoppers and pineapple juice to a boil. Then, add in the lemongrass and chilies and let steep for 10 minutes on high heat. Remove the lemongrass and chilies, then blend the remaining liquid on high for 2 minutes. Strain the mixture and place back into the blender, adding peanuts. Blend for another 2 minutes. Place the mixture back in the saucepan and bring it to a boil again. Turn off the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Finally, strain a final time, adding a quarter cup of pineapple juice.

To make the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory: In a cocktail shaker combine all ingredients, then shake vigorously. Strain and serve the drink in a cocktail glass on the rocks. Garnish with an edible flower and place a grasshopper on the flower.

Cocktails for a Cause

By Tim Ebner | Photography by Jennifer Chase

Carlie Steiner has a lot to say, America, and she’s speaking out loud, one cocktail at a time.

Carlie Steiner has a lot to say, America, and she’s speaking out loud, one cocktail at a time.

Carlie Steiner has a lot to say, America, and she’s speaking out loud, one cocktail at a time.

Taking a nontraditional approach to cocktail design, Steiner, co-owner of Himitsu and manager of their drinks program, recently debuted a trio of cocktails that she designed to help spotlight social causes she supports.

These are also cocktails that have unique backstories, each with roots from Steiner’s life. From the rugged mountain terrain of Bolivia, to that week she spent volunteering with migrants at the U.S.–Mexican border, each cocktail tells a new story of impact that she hopes others will recognize and support.

“In 2018, I gave myself a lot of excuses that I was just one person, so what could I do to change things?” Steiner says. “This year is all about making an impact both in big and small ways.”

It’s a sentiment that inevitably spilled onto Himitsu’s spring cocktail menu. Look for three new drinks to know by name: The Tamarind Chufly, Don’t Call Me Lady-Boss and We Fed an Island.

In three acts, here are Steiner’s stories of impact, the ride-along recipes (for the at-home bartender) and three ways you can join Steiner in her causes.

With this cocktail, named the Tamarind Chuffy, Steiner says you’re already supporting Bolivian farmers who have made singani for centuries, but she encourages people to take their impact a step further by donating money to Water for People, a nonprofit that works on water accessibility issues in Bolivia.

With this cocktail, named the Tamarind Chuffy, Steiner says you’re already supporting Bolivian farmers who have made singani for centuries, but she encourages people to take their impact a step further by donating money to Water for People, a nonprofit that works on water accessibility issues in Bolivia.

ACT 1: RAISING BOLIVIA OUT OF POVERTY

Drink: The Tamarind Chufly

Backstory:
Steiner’s introduction to singani, a popular Bolivian spirit, came through a close friend and partner from Chufly Imports, Tealye Long. In the bartending world, singani is a bit of a dark horse trailing behind mezcal or pisco, but in the DC bar scene, thanks in no small part to Chufly Imports’ presence, singani is almost always on a drink menu or bar shelf. The spirit, which is produced from high-altitude fermented grapes, has a light, floral and citrus expression that makes it easy to work into many cocktail combinations. In Bolivia, the natural drink of choice is the Chufly, a simple cocktail made with singani and ginger ale or ginger beer. Steiner’s take on a Chufly involves infusing tamarind for several days. “I like the tamarind flavor because it’s a really beautiful balance of both sweet and sour,” she says. “And I wanted to incorporate that into my own take on a Chufly with other natural ingredients—ginger and lime.”

But how exactly did a Bolivian cocktail make it on the menu at Himitsu, a restaurant that specializes in Korean fried chicken? Steiner took a trip to Bolivia and it was love at first step into her home away from home. “As a solo traveler I was very nervous about going, but the truth is I didn’t have a single bad day there,” she says. “I also found that there’s an inherent kindness to the people. It’s incredibly family-oriented and based always in love.” But Bolivia is also a land of extremes—high altitude and poverty and where clean water and access to sanitation are not always guaranteed. With this cocktail, Steiner says you’re already supporting Bolivian farmers who have made singani for centuries, but she encourages people to take their impact a step further by donating money to Water for People, a nonprofit that works on water accessibility issues in Bolivia.

The Tamarind Chufly

½ ounce lime juice
1 ounce cold-pressed ginger syrup
2 ounces Rujero singani infused with tamarind for flavor

In a cocktail shaker mix all the ingredients together. Shake vigorously, then strain and top with soda water. Garnish with a lime.

How to support the cause? Drink Bolivian wine and spirits, take a trip to this magical country or donate to Water for People (waterforpeople.org), a nonprofit that offers high-quality drinking water and sanitation services to communities in Bolivia.

The Don’t Call Me a Lady-Boss cocktails features equal parts (pun intended) Rodham (as in Hillary) Rye whiskey, Capitoline White Vermouth and Tiber, which is an even better stand-in for Campari, according to Steiner.

The Don’t Call Me a Lady-Boss cocktails features equal parts (pun intended) Rodham (as in Hillary) Rye whiskey, Capitoline White Vermouth and Tiber, which is an even better stand-in for Campari, according to Steiner.

ACT 2: WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN

Drink: Don’t Call Me Lady-Boss

Backstory:
When Steiner went looking for a DC-specific Negroni, it didn’t take her long to realize that she could do so using ingredients sourced exclusively from women-owned spirit brands found inside the District: Republic Restoratives and Capitoline, both located in Ivy City.

“How amazing is that? I think it’s fate,” Steiner says. “This drink is all about women and supporting women in this battle of equality.” The drink features equal parts (pun intended) Rodham (as in Hillary) Rye whiskey, Capitoline White Vermouth and Tiber, which is an even better stand-in for Campari, according to Steiner.

“What I love about a Negroni is that it’s so easy to make,” she says, “and it’s the perfect drink to for some outdoor drinking on a warm spring day.” The naming of this drink—Don’t Call Me Lady-Boss—came from Steiner’s experience rising in the ranks of the food and beverage community and working in an industry that’s oftentimes male-dominated. “As I went along, people would always call me a lady-boss,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Why are people calling me a lady-boss? I don’t call you a man-boss. Just call me a boss.’”

Don’t Call Me Lady-Boss

1 ounce Republic Restoratives Rodham Rye
1 ounce Capitoline White Vermouth
1 ounce Capitoline Tiber
A few drops of cold-pressed orange oil

Add all the ingredients together, then stir and garnish with a few dashes of orange oil.

How to support the cause?

Make a point to support women-owned craft spirit brands like Capitoline Vermouth and Republic Restoratives in Washington, DC.

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About this drink, named We Fed an Island, Steiner said: “This cocktail and this cause are two things that bring me so much joy, and it’s another place worthy of a donation or hours of volunteering.”

About this drink, named We Fed an Island, Steiner said: “This cocktail and this cause are two things that bring me so much joy, and it’s another place worthy of a donation or hours of volunteering.”

Act 3: WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN

Drink: We Fed an Island

The Story:
Earlier this year, Steiner had the opportunity to travel with a group of DC chefs to Tijuana to cook and serve food to migrants fleeing their homelands in Central America. It was during a time when many families and children were stuck at the U.S.–Mexican border with nowhere to turn for housing, food or water, and it was also another example where World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization led by Chef José Andrés, showed up to help.

“It was an extremely grueling workplace,” Steiner says. “But I’ll never forget walking across the border into Mexico. That was a very profound moment. It’s almost a feeling of guilt because so many others can’t do so.”

Something else she’ll never forget is Andrés’s spirit of generosity and hospitality. “My love for him and all things World Central Kitchen can only be matched by my love and admiration for what I think is the perfect cocktail—the Daiquiri,” Steiner says. So, to make a drink in Andrés’s honor, she found ingredients from countries where World Central Kitchen has set up humanitarian relief: Puerto Rico (limes), Indonesia (passion fruit), Haiti (Rhum Barbancourt) and, for good effect, Manzanilla sherry from José Andrés’s homeland of Spain. “This cocktail and this cause are two things that bring me so much joy,” Steiner says, “and it’s another place worthy of a donation or hours of volunteering.”

We Fed an Island

¾  ounce passionfruit syrup
¾  ounce lime juice
1 ounce Manzanilla sherry
1 ounce Rhum Barbancourt

Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into the drink into a coupe glass.

How to support the cause?

Volunteer your time or donate money to support José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen.