For those adventurous enough to try the earthy, grassy crunch and squirt of a silkworm pupae, or beondegi (번대기) in Korean, there is another “slimy yet satisfying” Korean treat — the humble grasshopper.
It is extremely difficult to find, but for those determined to try the once common traditional Korean snack, with a little luck, finding grasshoppers is not impossible.
Moran Market in Seoul on lines 3 and 8 is famous for having just about every Korean food you can imagine, including grasshoppers, or meddugi (메뚜기) in Korean.
Han Han-su, 77, a customer at the market, however, cautions that the grasshopper vendors in the market sell Chinese grasshoppers, which are not the same quality as Korean ones. The Chinese ones can be as much as two to three years old!
When I visited there, I had no luck in finding a grasshopper vendor, but several vendors and shoppers remembered seeing them in the market.
By far the best bet for tasting a grasshopper is at a festival. Koreans seem to have a festival for everything: fireworks, bamboo, bull fighting, ice fishing. They even have festivals dedicated to the rural foods common after the Korean War, and this includes grasshoppers.
Im Ban-dal, 55, is owner of Moran Coffee Shop (모란 커피 숍), a tent cafe in Moran Market. Before the 1970s there were no 7-Elevens, GS25s or other corner stores from which to buy snacks.
Even if there were corner stores, few had the money. So Im used to collect grasshoppers and other small animals on the way to school for snacks. Back then, said 69-year-old Baek Nam-seok, one of Im’s customers, all the things they ate came from nature because they didn’t have anything.
It was a hard time, but today the history and the fun of catching wild things to eat is celebrated at various festivals around Korea such as the Wanju Wild Food Festival, the Gangjin Golden Fields Grasshopper Festival, and the Yeongdeok Hasuabi Grasshopper Hunting Festival held from October to early November.
At these festivals visitors can experience the fun of catching a variety of critters, including grasshoppers, and eating them.
Ask a Korean!
Most Koreans these days are introduced to the taste of grasshoppers by parents or grandparents such as Im, Baek and Han. It is a way for the older generation to share their history, their struggles and the nation’s agricultural roots with their kids and grandkids.
If you are lucky you could meet a Korean like Im. She had collected a whole plastic container full of grasshoppers herself at an organic farm in Yongin. She did not serve grasshoppers at her cafe, but, as a kind and enthusiastic woman, she was more than happy to bring her grasshopper stash to share for the story.
Privately, one of my Korean friends learned that I was looking for grasshoppers and brought me leftover grasshoppers that one of his coworkers had randomly brought into work.
Hofs (호프집) are Korean style bars. Supposedly they got their name when a Korean overheard some GIs during the Korean War toast “Hope!” and then turned it into a bar name.
Anju, dishes served with alcohol, are an important part of the of hof experience. And in the past they had one heck of an alternative to peanuts. Choi Jia, 46, is a food historian and owner of O’ngo Food Communications, a Korean cooking class and food tour company in Insadong.
She says that grasshoppers were eaten as anju at hofs as late as the 1980s, but the practice didn’t last the decade. Presumably, says Choi, the increase of Western influence in Korea contributed to the decline of grasshopper eating in general, making it very hard to find after the ’88 Olympics.
She, along with all the people we spoke to at Moran, also implicate environmental changes in the decline. With the introduction of pesticides like DDT in the ’70s, said Han, who owns an organic rice farm in Bundang, grasshoppers all but vanished from Korean rice fields.
However, with increased restrictions on pesticides over the last few years and the rise of organic farming, the grasshopper population has seen a resurgence. “They are everywhere this year,” said Im.
So is there a chance some hofs have resumed the practice? Baek says that some hofs in Seoul do serve grasshoppers. Unfortunately, he could not remember any one hof in particular.
In the past, with the lack of affordable sources of protein, Im says they used to add grasshoppers to their lunch boxes or doshilak (도시락).
Doshilak were not restaurant food for Im, but you can find doshilak, the Korean version of a bento box, at many restaurants these days. However, you most likely will find spam, sausages or eggs for your protein, not grasshoppers.
Adventurous gourmets can find grasshoppers at fancy eateries in New York, London and Paris, but can they be found in Seoul?
Jung Sik Dang, an elite restaurant in Gangnam, once served a grasshopper salad. It is mentioned in a couple blogs such as Seoul Eats and Korea Taste.
However, Park Hyung-seok, a part-time employee at the restaurant, says the menu has changed since those blogs were posted in 2010. Even the staff that worked on the dish is gone.
Better chances of finding a plated grasshopper are south of Seoul. Choi Jia, as a guest speaker for the Korean Department of Agriculture, was once treated to a meal at a restaurant in Naju, a small town in Jeolla Province. The meal included grasshoppers as a side dish. Unfortunately, she could not remember the name of the restaurant.
Catch your own
If you really want an authentic Korean grasshopper experience then you need to catch and cook your own. According to Im, grasshoppers are typically found in the most abundance in rice fields between late August and October, just before the autumn harvest.
If your field has few or no grasshoppers, it was likely sprayed with pesticides. Organic fields are on the rise, though, giving grasshoppers a hopping chance.
To be truly authentic you need to collect the bugs without using any plastic containers or bags. Im demonstrated the technique. Strip a grass stem of leaves and then thread the grasshopper on the stem, inserting the grass through a natural gap between the grasshopper’s head and abdomen.
Once you have collected your grasshoppers it’s time to cook them. According to Im, you first need to dry them out in a large, traditional, wood-fired pot called a gamasot (가마솥).
The grasshoppers will pop like popcorn, so you need to keep the lid on or they’ll escape. Keep them in there for five minutes. Those who enjoyed torturing bugs as children will like the next step: pull off the inedible wings.
Return the grasshoppers to the gamasot and sauté the bugs in oil and salt. Some Koreans use sesame oil. Others use perilla oil. But, if you want your grasshoppers to be fully authentic, use soybean oil.
Called kong gileum (콩기름), soybean oil was commonly used in the past because it was inexpensive. If you want to break from tradition, change things up.
Choi suggests cooking them in garlic, ginger and soy sauce.
How do you know when the grasshoppers are done? They change color. Just as lobsters change from brown to red when you cook them, grasshoppers change from green to yellow. The end result is more mahogany than yellow, but it is a crispy, salty snack that doesn’t taste nearly as frightening as it looks.
It should be noted that the senior Koreans we spoke with don’t want eating grasshoppers to be a source of spectacle, a foodies’ version of the bearded lady at the freak show.
For many elderly Koreans, eating grasshoppers was a means of survival in a very difficult chapter of Korean history when food and resources were scarce in the wake of the Korean War.
To eat a grasshopper in Korea is to share in the history of a people struggling to survive, to recover, to rise out of the devastation and build the thriving, modern society it is today.
“Just at that time it was a very very serious situation,” said Baek. “We went through the Korean War. We had no choice at the time. Now things have changed.”
So if you find some grasshoppers to eat, before you bite, say thank-you to the little critter that helped Korea during those hard times.
Translating and additional reporting by Park Jun-sik and Park Yong-jung. You can find more of Farrell’s food reviews at his blog, EAT KOREA.