Food

This DC-Area Chef Is Making Cicada Scampi, Brood X Laab, and Avocicada Toast

Thip Khao's Seng Luangrath is getting creative with insects.

Avocado toast. Photo by Seng Luangrath.

Growing up in Laos, Thip Khao/Padaek/Sen Khao chef Seng Luangrath remembers her grandma coming home with cicadas and their eggs. She would fry them with charred garlic, and crush the mixture with fish sauce to make jaew, a dip paired with sticky rice. For some chefs, cicada cooking is a flying fad. But for Luangrath, the arrival of Brood X is an opportunity to return to family recipes like that cicada jaew, as well as innovate new dishes.

Jaew Juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.
Jaew Juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.

The bugs Luangrath cooks are foraged in local woods, and the harvest is good: on Tuesday, Luangrath and a friend collected around five pounds of cicada. While the insects have garnered a reputation for tasting like shrimp of the sky, Luangrath describes the taste as walking through the forest and smelling the woody, aromatic scent of the trees.

Cicada scampi. Photo by Seng Luangrath.
Cicada scampi. Photo by Seng Luangrath.

Still, the cicadas bear many similarities to their shrimp cousins, which is why Luangrath suggests a scampi-style preparation as a first foray into cicada cooking, twirling pan-fried cicadas with garlicky spaghetti. The insects get ultra-crispy when tossed in a pan with oil, and Luangrath has harnessed that crunch for Laotian dishes such as an herbaceous laab salad.

Laab juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.
Laab juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.

For those who prefer their snacks to have a less cicada-forward appearance, Luangrath recommends rolling the insects in tempura batter, then deep frying them. The chef has also been experimenting with avocado toast, smashing the cicadas on top for a jammy texture.

“It’s more approachable for people to try it,” Luangrath says. “People were freaking out eating cicadas, but I just make a toast and people like it.”

Kua Juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.
Kua Juk Jun. Photo by Seng Luangrath.

Rather than putting the cicadas on any restaurant menus, Luangrath is currently relying on Instagram posts to spread the word; interested parties can direct message her to coordinate a pick up. Although friends, family, and fellow chefs have expressed enthusiasm for the cicada dishes, Luangrath says some commenters have chastised her for killing and consuming insects. However, Luangrath sees Brood X as an opportunity to educate diners on a sustainable source of protein that has the power to save lives.

“My mom was working [in Laos] back in the days of the war, and she traveled all over the country, seeing a lot of hunger,” says Luangrath. “They had to do whatever they can to feed the children. Insects were part of that.”

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Daniella Byck
Assistant Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in August 2018. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied journalism and digital culture.