For most, discovering a winged or multi-legged crawler in their food would be a problem, but for a pair of adventurous culinarians entrenched in the local beer scene, a dung beetle in a pile of mashed potatoes doesn’t equate to a fly-in-the-ointment situation. It’s exactly what they’re going for.
Earlier this year, The Good Seed Food Co. chef and owner Jesus “Chuy” de la Torre and Cicerone and brewery vet Jesse Smith hatched an idea to take beer-and-food pairing to previously unexplored, creepy-crawly territory, by incorporating insects into an array of dishes. It was so outlandish that finding the right time frame and setting for such adventurous eating proved difficult. The impending arrival of All Hallow’s Eve and the openness of Pariah Brewing eventually provided the perfect buggy backdrop.
With details settled—four courses paired with four Pariah beers presented the Tuesday before Halloween—they marched like determined army ants into the unknown.
Working the Bugs Out
The first thing Chuy and Jesse had to do was find and sample a variety of bugs. A mail-order service allowed them to get their pincers into a varied stash of crawling, squirming, hopping, flying creatures, none of which they had ever tasted.
The duo met up at Pariah’s tasting room in North Park’s Brewery Igniter facility, pens and notepads in-hand, to work their way through the assortment and record their impressions. Tastes ranged from woody and earthy to toasty and herbaceous. It wasn’t all that different from the range of flavors present in edible flora, vegetables or mushrooms.
In the end, only one or two flavor profiles disqualified particular insects; what nixed most from contention was texture. The protective exoskeletons of many of the bugs they sampled were difficult to eat in some cases, leading Chuy and Jesse to select species that were easier to get down the hatch. The last-bugs-standing quartet included crickets, giant worms, dung beetles and weaver ants.
A Swarm of Options
With an admittedly fearsome foursome in place, it was time to see how this exotic fare would fare with Pariah’s beers. The majority of owner and brewmaster Brian Mitchell’s beers are flavored with spices, herbs and often-exotic adjuncts. This was advantageous in that they provided a wealth of supplementary flavors to raise up the somewhat bland bugs. After about an hour of flexing their palates, the following menu materialized:
- Cricket Taco with Mole Salsa and Epazote paired with Dank Drank IPA
- Giant Worm and Cucumber Nigiri paired with Passion of the Kiwi Berliner Weisse
- Dung Beetle Mashed Potatoes and Gravy paired with Off White Wit
- Weaver Ant Ice Cream with All the Bootleg Snacks Imperial Stout
Flavor compatibility wasn’t the only thing considered when developing pairings. Smith devoted a great deal of attention to creating contrast for three of the four dishes.
He deemed Off White Wit, a Belgian-style wheat ale brewed with honey, green tea, lemongrass, orange and ginger, a nice medium-low-bodied counter to the rich mashed potatoes. And while Dank Drank, a Mosaic-stocked American IPA, featured piney, “dank” flavors that synced with the corn tortilla and epazote (a lemony, bitter herb popular in Mexican cookery), it also helped cut through the accompanying, viscous, mole-like sauce.
But in the case of dessert, vanilla ice cream dusted with a top-layer of weaver ants, he went with the flow, marrying it with a pastry stout brewed with coffee, vanilla, coconut and numerous generic versions of popular childhood sweet treats.
But How Does It Taste?
As it turns out, despite widely different appearances and biological structures, insects can taste relatively similar. It’s not like beef, chicken and pork; the range of flavors is much narrower. Crickets are particularly neutral, making them a nice protein source that adds crunchy texture. Knowing this, Chuy introduced bold flavor with his salsa, like one might when working with another tamer star ingredient. The IPA beer pairing works well and makes for a quintessentially San Diego tandem.
The giant worms served sushi-style tied atop a finger of sticky rice with a thin strand of cucumber aren’t as gargantuan as their name implied. They are actually skinny, enough that it took two to take up substantial real estate atop its glutinous foundation. But they probably have the most flavor of the four, coming across as nutty with a mushroom-like, funky earthiness and a toasty aftertaste. The nigiri is served on its own, but some soy, yuzu Kewpie mayo or even sriracha could be a nice accouterment.
Next, they probably serve Chuy’s buttery mashed potatoes in heaven. Whether they come with a dung beetle floating in the gravy gracing them is something to be answered on the other side. Here on Earth, the beetle adds a touch of charred meatiness and substantial crunch. It works well enough that, like a teen from the sixties, it pretty much begs for more beetles. While the witbier does cut the richness of the dish, its lack of body makes it the least appealing pairing.
Then there’s the ice cream and pastry stout combo. It sounds ideal—especially if you’re an aardvark—and it tastes divine. Even the ants, the insides of which have an unexpected, faint lemony tartness, only detract as one tries to swallow them. They stick in the back of the throat, but thankfully there’s plenty of beer to help wash them down.
For a first-time collaboration, the likes of which likely won’t appeal to the average eater, this is quite the success and worth seeking out. Solid flavors, daring but calculated incorporation of stranger things and good beer to boot. Could this event scare up a trend? Probably not, but there’s something to be said for being the first to forge into new territory. And even more to be said for doing it as well as these pioneers did.
Tickets to Pariah Brewing’s “Spooktacular Beer Pairing” are available online. The event will take place on Tuesday, October 29 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. and guests can show up any time within that window for this self-guided experience.