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January 15, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Chic South Lake Union eatery experiments with cricket cuisine

Meeru Dhalwala, right, helps prepare cricket parathas. Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Meeru Dhalwala, right, helps prepare cricket parathas. Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Nothing bugs restaurateur Meeru Dhalwala about the new menu addition at Shanik, her restaurant in South Lake Union. In fact, bugs — specifically, crickets — will be included in one dinner dish at the modern Indian restaurant starting Thursday, in a nod to environmentally sustainable protein and public education.

Checking on a tray of the fresh-roasted insects last week, as she worked with her head chef to prepare the dish, Dhalwala noted “that potato chip crunch” signified the chirpers were properly cooked.

She understands the potential ick factor of serving bugs to diners who are more accustomed to the lamb popsicles and chutneys and curries that have brought her restaurants fame — first Vij’s and Rangoli in Vancouver, B.C., owned with husband Vikram Vij; and now Shanik, owned with business partner Oguz Istif. In fact, her own first reaction to the idea was similar: “Wow. Yuck!”

That reaction came years back, when Dhalwala read a New York Times Magazine article about the relative health and environmental benefits of eating bugs, a practice far more common in other cultures. She was particularly struck by a quote about how “Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the S.U.V.’s; bugs are the bicycles.”

That experience connected her with naturalist David George Gordon, of Seattle, author of “The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook,” who went to Vancouver to help show her the basics of bug-eating, or entomophagy. (In his own cookbook, he includes a spice mix from a Dhalwala cricket recipe, along with cricket “Chirpy Chex” mix, a chocolate cricket torte, and more.)

About 100 crickets go into each paratha. Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

About 100 crickets go into each paratha. Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

“That was hard. He showed up with live worms,” she recalled. She steeled herself to munch on a few, and said they popped with hints of pistachio and grape.

Dhalwala first experimented at Rangoli with the same dish that is going on the Shanik menu — cricket paratha, an unleavened flatbread, with various additions. On Thursday’s menu, she’s starting out with a topping of spicy tomato chutney.

In the kitchen at Shanik last week, she pulverized the roasted crickets in a large spice grinder — she sources the bugs from a ranch in Everson, near Bellingham, a connection she made through Gordon. “We treat them like raw chicken” per health department requirements, she said.

The grassy-smelling powder was mixed with bran, whole wheat, all-purpose flour and spices, flattened into discs and pan-fried. About 100 crickets go into each paratha — “super high in protein, iron!” read her menu.

“Because crickets are very flaky and light, I use buttermilk in [the mix] instead of water,” she said.

Dhalwala played around with the sample parathas, layering sauteed greens and sour-cream chutney on one, trying the tomato version on another.

Once plated, it tasted as intensely satisfying as any other Dhalwala dish punched up with ginger and cumin and jalapeño, the crickets adding the same sort of toasty flavor that comes with a hit of buckwheat or quinoa. The testers tore off bites with their fingers, eating more than a polite sample.

Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Photo by Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

The parathas were popular at Rangoli when she introduced them — though one diner did report her to the health department, she recalled, well aware that bugs in restaurants would be considered a red flag in other circumstances.

(Crickets and other insects are allowed as food, provided they are properly sourced and employees follow standard rules such as hand-washing and preparation in a properly permitted facility, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County. Insects are featured already on a few Seattle menus, such as the chapulines, or grasshoppers, at Poquitos on Capitol Hill.)

The flatbreads seemed a good gateway to introduce the idea to the public. Whole insects, Dhalwala knew, would not go over well in a population more accustomed to seeing them wielded for “Fear Factor” gross-outs.

And indeed, at Rangoli, she stopped the experiment after attempting to add a whole cricket “pizza” on naan to the menu, using the crickets in place of olives and paneer rather than mozzarella.

“It really was just dynamite,” she said.

But?

“It was a real hard sell to see a whole cricket — well, 60 crickets — on your pizza.”

She temporarily pulled the entire experiment, deciding to try again once Shanik was well-established.

U.S. diners, she thinks, might be even more willing to jump into trying out insects, to sample anything at least once. And if they will try it once, she thinks, they might well try it again. Unlike chickens, she noted, crickets do well when they are crowded on farms.

In a world facing overfishing, pollution fears, and decreasing farmland, they’re increasingly being seen as a realistic source of healthy food.
And, under the right circumstances, they hold up their end of the taste equation as well. If the parathas work here, Dhalwala said, she could see the flour next in a treat like chocolate-chip cookies.

“If we can enjoy what we are eating and then make the connection to the environment, then it will stick.”

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