Editor's Note:While we're all familiar with the usual dishes around Chicago like pizza and Italian beef, there's a whole world of adventurous food in Chicago from bugs to offal. Dennis is ready to explore the wild side of the dining scene.
It's no secret: I'm a huge fan of Andrew Zimmern's Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods. Like most people, I first tuned in for the novelty of it all; seeing Mr. Zimmern chow down on eyeballs, rotten fish, and little buggies of all types was wildly entertaining for me (seeing as Jackass is one of my favorite shows, that shouldn't be a surprise). But when it comes down to it, the food we consider exotic is what people eat out of necessity, whether it be in a remote corner of the world or even right here in Chicago. It's just everyday food for someone, somewhere.
That being said, when I heard that a brand spankin' new restaurant in Lakeview, Four Belly, was serving up things like silkworms, I knew I had to try them and share my experience with you awesome (and perpetually curious) Serious Eaters.
I'll start off easy. The takoyaki ($6.00) isn't all that strange or exotic, but for some people, the thought of eating alien-looking octopus is terrifying. Plus, when I refer to them as octopus balls, people always raise an eyebrow. These are basically small spherical pancakes that are approximately the size of golf balls, with chunks of octopus hiding inside the batter. They're served with a salty dark sauce (some people liken it to Worcestershire sauce), Japanese mayonnaise, bonito (dried shaved fish flakes), and shredded nori (seaweed).
When they're served piping hot, the bonito flakes wiggle around as if they're alive from the heat and the moisture of the octopus balls. The balls are soft and moist with chewy chunks of octopus, and the toppings serve to accentuate the savoriness of all the fun. This is a dish that aims directly for umami territory.
Oh, Kermit. Your stems are so fine, we just have to eat them. Sorry, Miss Piggy, you're going to have to file a missing frog report. The crispy frog legs ($7.00) are delicious and simple. The froggy meat has a texture between a chicken wing and a firm white fish, with just a tiny hint of flavor that lets you know it's not actually some funny form of chicken. They're salted and seasoned simply, and I'd take Four Belly's frog legs over chicken wings any day. I like to think of frog as water chicken.
Now for the fun stuff: the fried silkworms ($4.00). Rather than being caterpillars, these are the pupae that live in the cocoons when the larvae are in transition from caterpillar to fully grown moth. It's a common street food in Asia, and the first and only previous time I ate them was from a street vendor in Korea when I was a kid. I was really grossed out by the idea back then, but I tried them anyway and decided they were the worst thing ever at the time.
These are pan fried with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, giving them a distinctly Thai flavor. The silkworms themselves do have an interesting taste: they're nutty, mild, and musky, with a slightly crisp exterior and dry-ish mealy interior. They leave a bit of shell in your mouth, sort of like those little bits of popcorn that get stuck in your teeth when you're done with the bowl. Now that I'm a big boy, I've changed my mind—I like them now!
The folks over at Four Belly are very thoughtful, and they realize that this sort of thing scares people with more delicate sensibilities, so they only pan fry the silkworms in one pan dedicated to just the bugs. They don't come in contact with any of the other food, so don't be deterred from visiting Four Belly if the idea scares you. The manager also informed me that they'll soon be serving bamboo caterpillars, which she says are much crunchier than the silkworms.
I'm really excited at the prospect of discovering more interesting food like this—if you've got any favorites, or are curious about anything, drop me a line in the comments section below. This is going to be fun. Really, really, fun.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.