Eating cockroaches: Healing and delicious?
By David McKenzie
JINAN, China (CNN) — I’ve eaten some unusual things on the road.
There were salted Mopani worms in Botswana at the hotel buffet (black and squishy); sun-dried nsenene grasshoppers in Uganda (yellow and juicy); whole roasted goat in the desert in Mauritania (delicious), and chicken head and feet soup in Beijing (only unusual if you are not from China).
Officially, my travel advice to you is this well-worn phrase: If you can’t boil it, cook it or peel it, then don’t eat it.
But between you, me, and the screen, sometimes it’s best to put the energy bars and canned nuts aside and feed your culinary curiosity.
That’s just what I was challenged to do when I visited a thriving cockroach farm in Jinan, China. But more on that later.
An appetite for adventure
Some of my favorite travel experiences have been of eating street food or home-cooked delicacies that I have never heard of before.
After 10 hours in the desert sun, chicken barbequed on a coal fire in Chad tastes like a Michelin-starred offering.
And I don’t know what the guy put into his pot of chicken and broth in the foothills of the Himalayas, but it was worth choking on the smoke from the stove inside his hut.
There are pitfalls for the adventurous eater. I have yet to meet a journalist with a well-worn passport who hasn’t had a bout or two of gut-wrenching giardiasis (I will spare you the details).
And sometimes you do regret a culinary decision (goat-bile on the shores of Lake Victoria, I’m talking to you).
Occasionally, it’s best to say “no” — so I declined the dried mice in Malawi skewered on a stick and offered by the side of the highway, despite the insistence of our producer.
Which all gets me, in a roundabout way, to Wang Fuming, the kingpin of cockroaches in Jinan, China.
Wang has a dream: To put roaches on plates and bowls throughout China as a high protein meal.
“I love these cockroaches, I feel very close to them,” he tells me.
In a tumble-down industrial district on the shabby outskirts of Jinan, Wang farms millions of cockroaches. Ten million before “harvest time,” he tells me.
He keeps the roaches in warehouses with narrow corridors and hives made of cement roof shingles. Stepping inside is like a waking nightmare or a scene from the film “Alien.” There’s a strong smell of ammonia and the sound of scuttling legs.
Wang breeds American cockroaches (actually, they’re originally from Africa) and he sells them to pharmaceutical companies in China by the ton.
They are usually ground and stuffed into pills and advertised as a cure for all manner of stomach, heart, and liver ailments.
In recent years, they have become a staple in Chinese medicine shops here, promising wondrous results. Cockroach medicine is having something of a boom.
Crunchy, with an aftertaste
But Wang prefers them fresh and wants me to try one, so he drags a gas stove into his office and throws a steel bowl full of roaches into peanut oil.
He promptly scoops them out. “Is that it?” I ask.
“No, twice fried,” he says, throwing them back into the oil.
After which, Wang promptly starts tucking in. He really seems to enjoy it. “I felt so much better after I started eating cockroaches,” he says.
Now, all that is left is for me to try one. Wang points out a suitable roach on the corner of the dish. “Its wings have come off, so it’s easier to eat,” he says.
I pop it in my mouth and chew — American roaches are, unfortunately, too big to swallow whole.
The verdict. They’re crunchy, like a spindly overcooked French fry, and they leave an aftertaste that has serious staying power.
I realize that roaches may not be the best way to convince you to be an adventurous eater, but think of them as the standard bearer.
Or take Wang’s word for it.
“If you don’t try it, you will regret it for the rest of your life,” he exclaims.