Peering into the jar, I can see the little brown heads, eyes, bodies and wings of about 30 dried locusts. Crumbled body parts rattle at the bottom. I set it aside, for now: A few friends will arrive shortly for a tasting party. There are thousands of species of grasshopper around the world. Under particular environmental conditions—usually heavy rains followed by drought—some two dozen of these species change their bodies and behavior and become locusts. They grow wings and swarm, sometimes in the trillions, covering hundreds of square miles and migrating with the wind. A single square mile of locusts can consume more food than 90,000 people can in a day.
Although insects are eaten in many cultures, locusts may seem like an unusual snack. Hargol FoodTech, the Israeli start-up that sent me the jar, is betting that locusts will be the future of sustainable protein—if consumers can surmount the “yuck” factor.
The account of the eighth plague in Exodus 10:13-15 vividly describes the devastation locusts can cause: “The east wind had brought the locusts. Locusts…settled within all the territory of Egypt in a thick mass. They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened; and they ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees…so that nothing green was left, of tree or grass of the field, in all the land.”
Although modern pest control methods have made locust plagues more rare, they still occur. From 2019 to 2021, a single plague of desert locusts infested 23 countries across Eastern Africa, the Middle East and beyond, causing severe food shortages for millions of people.
The potential of famine is likely one reason Leviticus allowed locusts to be eaten as opposed to most other insects. Even so, Jewish law surrounding eating locusts is not clear cut—the key question has been how to identify which species are kosher and which are not. Over time, Jews who lived in regions without severe locust plagues, such as Europe, developed a prohibition against eating any locusts, just to be safe. In contrast, Jews in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in Morocco and Yemen, have eaten locusts continuously since biblical times, and thus have living traditions identifying which species are kosher to eat.
In Israel’s pre-state Yishuv period, the question of whether European Jewish immigrants to Palestine could eat locusts became critical: One notable locust plague, from March to October in 1915, stripped Palestine of virtually all vegetation and led to the deaths of 100,000-200,000 people in the region from starvation or starvation-related diseases. Rabbi Yosef Yedid HaLevi, leader of the Bukharian neighborhood of Jerusalem at the time, ruled that the general community could rely on the Yemenite tradition. He wasn’t alone, but the national rabbinic authorities continued to prohibit general locust consumption, fearing that if they gave grasshoppers the green light, people might inadvertently harvest and eat nonkosher species.
Meanwhile, locusts continued to descend on Israel. Newsreels from the 1940s and 1950s show sweaty, mostly Ashkenazi, kibbutzniks dropping their hoes and swatting despairingly at the insects and frowning skyward. “They used to run to the fields and try to save the crops, and scare the [locusts] away,” says Hargol founder Dror Tamir, whose grandparents lived on Kibbutz Maanit, near Caesarea. “Then they saw these other Jews, the Yemenite and Moroccan Jews, coming to the same field from nearby villages to collect the locusts and eat them.”
This story helped inspire Hargol, whose gleaming 13,000-square-foot industrial facility can package 40 million locusts per year. When Tamir founded the company in 2015, he wasn’t concerned about locusts’ kosher status because he intended to market his protein internationally. But in 2017, a group of Yemenite and Moroccan rabbis visited Hargol’s facility to definitively identify the company’s locusts and ensure that no other insects could contaminate the production process. “At the end of that first visit, they blessed us and we ate [locusts] together,” says Tamir. Soon after, the national rabbinate declared that all locusts coming out of Hargol’s farm were kosher to eat. “And that was it, we revived a lost tradition,” he says.
Hargol isn’t alone. Moshe Basson, owner and chef of the renowned Jerusalem restaurant The Eucalyptus, began serving locusts in 2000. He says that wild locusts are much bigger and higher quality than farm-raised ones—but they’re only available during a swarm. (Nowadays, they’re sometimes also laced with toxic pesticides.) Basson boils his locusts in vegetable stock with turmeric, then—after removing their heads, wings, small legs, and “black, threadlike viscera”—rolls them in egg and seasoned flour and fries them in olive oil.
Although a staple source of protein in many traditional cuisines—including groups in Mexico, Thailand and
Ghana—entomophagy (insect-eating) is still rare in the Global North. There are some haute cuisine exceptions, such as Noma in Copenhagen, which has served crème fraîche with live ants and fermented cricket paste. But that may be changing: Crickets, silkworms and even scorpions are beginning to penetrate the snack market. Like Hargol, multiple companies in both Europe and the United States are now producing insect-based protein supplements for human consumption as an alternative to beef, chicken, whey and soy.
“Compared to beef protein, we’re talking about over 99 percent reduction in carbon emissions, water consumption, arable land usage and waste production,” boasts Tamir. “You can get your entire daily protein intake from about four spoons of locust powder.” Locusts are rich in vitamins and other nutrients as well, including omega three, iron, zinc and folic acid. Tamir also argues that they’re more ethical to farm, because unlike mammals and birds, locusts don’t suffer when crowded in dense conditions. He claims they can be put to sleep painlessly by lowering the temperature, and then killed by freezing. Unlike soy, which requires monocropping and habitat destruction at scale, locusts can be grown in a factory.
As my friends and I discuss all this, we pass around the jar of whole dried locusts. We notice the bugs have a distinctly funky smell, sort of like fish food. Nehama is first, boldly plucking a locust out of the jar, peeling off the wings, and popping them into her mouth. “Kind of like potato chips,” she says, munching thoughtfully before eating the body and finally the head. “Yeah, not bad!” But reactions are mixed—“The shapes are disconcerting, the smells are also a little disconcerting,” says a frowning Jonny. When it’s my turn, I opt to eat the head first. It’s remarkably crunchy. There’s a strong aftertaste no one can quite put their finger on. Truffle oil? Grass? Sesame? Yeast? We settle on “dried mushroom.”
After my friends leave, I put the jar on my spice rack, mostly as a joke. But less than a week later, while my partner and I were making dinner, we realized we needed protein for the meal.
Surprising ourselves, we reached for the jar of locusts, crumbled up a few, and mixed them into our stir-fry. The result? Not bad!
Opening image: Chef Joseph Yoon
MOSHE BASSON’S CRISP LOCUSTS
8 cups vegetable stock, add turmeric to taste
4 tablespoons flour
– olive oil for frying
3/4 teaspoon salt
– pepper, chilli powder, ground
– coriander and dried garlic granules to taste
1. Throw the locusts in the boiling stock, whole. Cook for about 3 minutes.
2. Drain the locusts and let them cool.
3. Twist off their heads: this will also pull out the black, threadlike viscera.
4. Remove the wings and small legs.
5. Make a seasoned flour with salt, pepper, chili powder, ground coriander and dried garlic granules.
6. Roll the pre-cooked locusts in a beaten whole egg, then roll them in the seasoned flour. Shake off excess flour.
7. Fry in olive oil for 1 to 2 minutes until the color turns golden brown.
Go to momentmag.com/locusts for more recipes.
ANNABELLE’S LOCUST SURPRISE
A Vegetable Garlic Stir-Fry with Crumbled Dried Locusts
1.5 cup brown rice
3 cups water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch broccolini, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces
3 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced diagonally
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
5 dried locusts, finely crumbled
1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari (adjust to taste)
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp garlic chili paste (adjust to taste)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp brown sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh basil leaves for garnish
Prepare brown rice:
Rinse the brown rice under cold water until the water runs clear.
In a medium-sized pot, bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add the rinsed rice and a pinch of salt.
Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let it simmer for about 40-45 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed.
Remove from heat and let it sit for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
Prepare the sauce:
Combine all ingredients for sauce in a small bowl and whisk together
Prepare the Stir-Fry:
In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat.
Add the minced garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant.
Add the sliced carrots to the pan and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes.
Add the broccolini to the pan and continue to stir-fry for another 3-4 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender but still have a bit of crunch.
Sprinkle the dried locusts over the vegetables and stir well to combine.
Stir in the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Plate the brown rice in serving bowls. Spoon stir-fry over the rice. Garnish with fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately and enjoy!
Top image: A locust soup. Photograph by Brooklyn Bugs.