What’s juicy, protein-rich, and covered in ants? It may be your new favorite, sustainable snack. “Monster balls” are a blend of pork, super worms, mealworms, and crickets seasoned with ginger and scallions. Raleigh’s Pho Nomenal Dumpling food truck came up with the winning recipe for this year’s Bug Fest at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science last Saturday.
Bugs may seem like a departure from Pho Nomenal’s typical menu standards of dumplings, pho, and a blend of Taiwanese and Southern comfort (see their corn dog bahn mi and Cheerwine bulgogi sloppy joe). But the team is not unfamiliar with quirky scenarios that require quick and inventive cooking. Sophia Woo and Sunny Lin (along with sometime accomplice Becca Ruffin) faced similar challenges in the 2015 season of the Food Network’s Great American Food Truck Race. As winners they walked away with $50,000 and bragging rights as best food truck in the country.
They garnish the “naked dumplings” with a sweet glaze of hoisin, blackberries, and ants. I happily would have eaten several. But Café Insecta was packed for the entire festival with a steady stream of invertebrate enthusiasts. I dared not deprive any of them.
Chefs from all over the Triangle peddled their bug-infested dishes in creative ways. Chez Moi Bakery served worm and grasshopper-topped brownies. Rocky Top Hospitality folded mealworms into Rice Krispies Treats, while Buku mixed crickets into ice cream. Mac-Ur-Roni added crickets to a barbecue mac-and-cheese.
All the buggy bites went down delectably, but Pho Nomenal’s meatballs stood out both in taste and successful incorporation. Co-owners Woo and Lin boiled the insects before roasting them. Woo reflected that the worms had a nutty flavor, while the crickets reminded her of mushrooms. Questions like, “If I defrost these, are they going to start moving?” inevitably arose among the chefs.
While they waited to taste, festivalgoers heard about the ecological relevance and cultural importance of entomophagy, or bug-eating.
Eating bugs may be a novelty to most Americans, but eighty percent of the world’s nations incorporate insects into their diets.
“Entomophagy is actually really significant from a cultural, environmental, and health perspective,” says Bradley Allf, the museum’s educational events specialist. “Insects are generally abundant, easy to harvest, and yield lots of nutrients and protein. Most of the meat eaten in our culture is really just mammal muscle. But when you eat a whole grasshopper or cricket you are eating skin, digestive tissue, appendagesthe whole grubworm enchilada, so to speak!”
Allf also stresses the environmental benefits of eating bugs. “Consider that a pound of crickets has about as much protein as a pound of beef,” he says. “Yet a pound of crickets requires just a tenth of a gallon of water to produce, while a pound of cow requires three thousand gallons.”
At the end of Saturday’s festivities, Pho Nomenal won a plaque of a 3-D-printed ant for best bug dish. Woo noted that, “Doing something like this pushes us to think about food again. We get to interact with a different crowd.”
Only two years into business and only a year out from its reality show win, the Pho Nomenal team, who met at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, maintains strong ties to the area even as projects expand. “We love this community. Its amazing that, honestly, a quarter-life crisis of mine turned into all of this,” Woo says. The truck itself was initially funded via Kickstarter and still has the names of funders incorporated into its artwork.
We lucky Triangle locals can regularly access Pho Nomenal’s menu. One way Woo and Lin are looking to satisfy the faraway cry for their cuisine? Wholesale frozen dumplings. The long-term dream, however, is a stable spot on the map. “A restaurant would further expand our goal of bringing interesting food to people in a fun, nonintimidating way,” says Woo. Bugs may or may not be included.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Bug Bites”