Hornet and Grasshopper Delights
Several weeks ago, I wrote about Naoko Takahashi, the Japanese
runner and winner of the women''s marathon at the Sydney
Olympics. Some credit for her winning performance was given
to her thirst for hornet juice. Hornet juice has reportedly been
shown by Japanese researchers to decrease muscular fatigue and
increase stamina. Before posting that column, I had written to
two former Japanese colleagues at Bell Labs asking them if they
had any information on the subject. Both have returned to Japan.
Surprisingly, neither had heard about the hornet juice and Ms.
Takahashi. That is, they did know of Takahashi but not of her
fondness for the juice. However, my friend Yoshitaka did
provide other information about hornets and the dietary
preferences in certain regions of Japan. His interesting letter
spurred my wife to suggest that it should be the subject of one of
my columns. Not one to dismiss my wife''s opinions in these
matters, here''s the column.
A couple of years ago the Olympic games were held in Nagano
prefecture in Japan. The people living in certain parts of this
prefecture, especially those in the deep valleys, were pretty
isolated a century or so ago. Their access to fish from the sea
was quite limited. Also, residents of the area did not eat meat
from livestock. (I''m under the impression that today steak is
very popular in Japan.) But back in those days how was one to
get enough protein? For most Japanese of that time, fish and
soybeans were the answer. In the isolated valleys, however, as a
supplement to their soybean diet, the people took to eating hornet
pupae, silkworm pupae and full-grown grasshoppers.
Given this heritage, it''s not surprising that one can still find
restaurants in the Nagano area serving these delicacies. My
friend Yoshitaka points out that any bee-like insect is pretty tasty
and that bees, wasps, hornets and the like are in that category.
But the tastiest is the hornet pupa, which can grow up to a couple
inches long. Hornet pupae are typically roasted in a frying pan
and seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. This is served hot with
cooked rice or you can put it on reserve in a bottle. Sometimes
the pupae are boiled and then dried, following which they are
ground up and placed in capsules like medicine to be consumed
later for nourishment. I presume that there might be some
stamina-enhancing effect although my friend didn''t compare the
dried product with the juice in that regard. Yoshitaka pointed out
that he and Ms. Takahashi were both born in the Gifu prefecture,
which is adjacent to Nagano. Presumably, she would have been
exposed to, or at least aware of the hornet experience prior to
becoming a marathon runner.
The people of the region appear to have abandoned dining on the
pupae of the silkworm, preferring to use them as bait for catching
fish. However, Yoshitaka says the Koreans still serve boiled
silkworm pupae as snacks. He also believes that the Koreans are
stronger in stamina than the Japanese and speculates that this is
due to their consumption of the silkworm pupae, red peppers and
onions. I''ve had red peppers and onions quite recently but found
no increase in stamina. Haven''t seen any silkworm pupae in our
The preparation of grasshopper is a bit more complicated but
generally the same as cooking the hornet. I might mention that
when Yoshitaka was at Bell Labs several decades ago, he had
considerable difficulty with the English language. I was amazed
at his fluency in his letter but of course some of the expressions
were not your everyday English. Concerning the grasshoppers
"First they are boiled after let them excrete, then dried." I think
you''ll agree that we would indeed want to have them excrete
first! After the drying, they are then boiled down in diluted soy
sauce with sugar. Yoshitaka: "Though grotesque, it tastes good
just like the dried shrimp treated in the same manner." In fact the
similarity is such that the grasshopper is called the land shrimp!
Today, you can find grasshopper served in the city of Sendai in
the Miyagi prefecture. The grasshoppers used in these dishes
live in the rice fields and during World War II, Yoshitaka reports
that many Japanese ate grasshoppers.
Yoshitaka says that he sees in the newspapers that there is a
famine in Africa. These famines are sometimes due to "locusts",
which we would recognize as grasshoppers. Yoshitaka wonders
why those in the famine areas don''t just eat the grasshoppers?
Good question. Maybe they do? About 130 years ago, a scholar
that Yoshitaka thinks was American visited Japan and was so
impressed with cooked grasshopper that he planned to introduce
it in his country. If he was indeed American, he didn''t have
much luck, judging from a singular lack of grasshopper dishes on
the menus of most restaurants that I frequent. I seem to recall
that back in my youth I once ate a chocolate-coated grasshopper.
It apparently did not make a particularly favorable impression on
me, having made no subsequent effort to search out this tasty
The Japanese seem to have an adventurous streak in them when
it comes to potentially poisonous food items. Yoshitaka says that
the hornet, as I mentioned in the earlier column, is deadly if it
stings you. Its poison is thought to be have the effect of
increasing stamina. He also mentioned that Nagano is famous
for one of its drinks, an alcoholic drink that contains poisonous
snake! To make this drink, you simply dip either a dried or a live
(!) poisonous snake in alcohol. This drink is available
"everywhere" in Japan. It wasn''t clear whether the snake was left
in the bottle or just dipped and removed. Perhaps it''s akin to
Tequila, with its worm still in the bottle.
When it comes to Japanese delicacies and potentially deadly food
items, I''m surprised that Yoshitaka didn''t mention fugu. Fugu is
the term for blowfish and the hold fugu has on the populace is
illustrated by a few quotes from the American University Web
site american.edu/TED/BLOWFISH.HTM . Kitaoji Rsanjin,
potter and gourmet: "The taste of fugu is incomparable. If you
eat it three or four times, you are enslaved... Anyone who
declines it for fear of death is really (a) pitiable person." Or the
traditional: "Those who eat fugu soup are stupid. But those who
don''t eat fugu soup are also stupid." Or another of those short
little verses typical of the Japanese: "Last night he and I ate fugu.
Today I help carry his coffin."
Why is fugu so feared and revered? Obviously, the answer to
the latter is that it must either taste great or else it quickly grows
on you. Apparently, consuming it may give you a warm tingling
feeling. The reason to fear the fugu is that, especially for the
most delicious and most poisonous species of blowfish, the
intestines, ovaries and notably the liver contain a toxin over a
thousand times more deadly than cyanide. And there is no
antidote. Only highly trained chefs should be allowed to prepare
fugu. If the chef makes a mistake, doesn''t prepare the fugu
properly and you eat it, you''re history! You might not even
finish your meal. A real showstopper!
It seems that around 70 to 100 people a year pay the price for
indulging in fugu. Many of these are in areas where the
individuals do their own cooking and don''t get all the toxin out.
In Japan, they take their Kabuki theater very seriously. So much
so, that some years ago one of the most gifted Kabuki actors had
been named a "living national treasure". It''s against the law to
serve fugu liver but this national treasure insisted that he wanted
to try it. The chef relented and the actor consumed four servings.
Poor foolish guy, he expired on the spot!
Brian Trumbore, in his week in review columns, occasionally
mentions his favorite indicators for gauging the strength or
direction of the economy. In Japan, one measure of the economy
is the fugu consumption. Fugu is quite expensive, perhaps a
couple hundred dollars a portion when prepared by a
competently trained chef. In today''s faltering economy, I would
imagine the fugu is not being served as frequently as it was
several years ago. Which could be a good thing. The fugu
population, like that of many other fish, is declining in the face
Back to insects, Yoshitaka speculated that the juice that Ms.
Takahashi drank for her marathoning was possibly honey in
which live hornets were dipped. The honey seems to extract the
essence from the dipped material and ginseng dipped in honey is
popular in Korea. I note that Yoshitaka''s speculation about the
hornet juice seems to be in contrast to the impression I got from
accounts that indicated that it was the hornet pupae that were the
source of the juice.
If you go back in the archives of my columns, you''ll find that
Viagra was one subject of my first column. Yoshitaka has
alerted me to YOU CHUU KA SOU, a fungus that parasitizes
the tentacle of some insect. This fungus also purportedly
enhances stamina. In his travels in China, Yoshitaka found it in
the souvenir shops and he suggests it might be available in
Chinatown in New York. They call it the Chinese Viagra. I''m
including this just for informational and in no way am I
endorsing the product or its possible effects!
I''m indebted to Yoshitaka for his informative letter and for
providing a subject for discussion at a time when we''re packing
for our annual trip to Marco Island in Florida. When in Marco, I
shall be sure to stick to grouper and avoid any fugu!
Allen F. Bortrum
NOTE: I have just received a package from my friend Yoshitaka and
found a packet of VAAM plus reprints of Professor Abe and cowor-
kers papers on hornet juice! I''ll take them to Marco Island and
will keep you posted. (See earlier column for significance of