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From cocktail bars to skincare routines, silkworms are showing up in unexpected places

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The Topsy-Turvy cocktail at Sugar Monk is garnished with an edible silkworm. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - At a New York City cocktail lounge called Sugar Monk, a glistening treasure chest sits on top of the bar, enticing hungry drinkers with a crispy snack to pair with their alcohol. But rather than the usual complimentary mixed nuts that you might expect to find in such a container, the contents will instead appeal only to customers who are unbothered by the practice of entomophagy.

Entomophagy, for those unfamiliar with the term, is simply a fancy way of referring to humans eating insects. Yes, Sugar Monk is serving bugs in lieu of roasted cocktail peanuts. That treasure chest is filled to the brim with silkworm pupae, and despite how you may personally feel about chowing down on insects, they’re absolutely edible. And if you can work up the courage to try them, you’ll discover that they’re not only edible in the most basic sense of the word, but they’re also downright tasty.

Would you be willing to eat a silkworm? It’s understandable if your immediate reaction is one of disgust, as insects are typically not presented as an appealing ingredient in the United States. When you consider all of the reasons why someone would choose to eat a bug, your mind might first jump to children trying to gross each other out with playground dares or contestants on television shows like “Fear Factor” and “Survivor,” motivated only by the potential for financial gain that could result from successfully swallowing a live grub.

You may also be reminded of the commonly shared fun fact that we unwittingly eat eight spiders a year in our sleep, which, in reality, is neither all that fun nor is it a legitimate fact. The origins of that urban legend are murky at best, but it’s just the right level of horrifying yet believable to have become widely accepted as an unfortunate truth. And while that idea can be dismissed as a myth, perhaps you’re aware of the many insect parts that do indeed make their way into our food supply, approved by the Food and Drug Administration as non-hazardous and unavoidable defects.

On the more intentional side of things, there’s also been a push lately to further develop the edible insect industry in the United States, with upscale restaurants serving beautifully plated grasshopper tacos and energy bar companies using cricket dust as an unexpected protein source. This recent trend largely stems from a desire to pursue more sustainable alternatives to the current meat industry. And although the true sustainability of an insect-based diet is still up for debate, several reports, including one published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have spurred on the further exploration of mini livestock farming, a much cuter way of referring to edible insect production.

Of course, in other parts of the world, eating insects is nothing new. In several Asian countries, it’s not unusual to find street food vendors offering marketgoers delicacies such as giant water bugs, ants, and, yes, silkworm pupae. Preparation can vary depending on location; silkworms, or “nhon mhai,” in Thailand are typically deep-fried, while the Korean variety, known as “beondegi,” can usually be found boiled or steamed.

Even if you can’t imagine eating the pupae yourself, an understanding of the silk production process will help you understand why some cultures do.

According to legend, the origin of sericulture can be traced to the Chinese empress Leizu, though the precise details of her discovery vary from tale to tale. In one account, the empress noticed that the mulberry trees in her garden were beginning to lose their leaves. While investigating the cause of the damage, she discovered small cocoons present on the trees and began to collect them. Leizu paused for afternoon tea and accidentally dropped one of the cocoons into her cup. Upon making contact with the hot tea, the cocoon began to unravel, and Leizu quickly realized the potential for the strong, luxurious thread.

Though the historical validity of this legend is uncertain at best, it does, in a way, accurately depict the process of extracting silk from cocoons.

Silk production most commonly involves mulberry silkworms, which, despite their name, are not actually worms at all but the larval form of the Bombyx mori, or the silkmoth. The completely domesticated insects secrete silk fibers from specialized glands to construct their cocoons. If their life cycle progressed as nature intended, they would eventually emerge from the cocoons as fully developed silk moths.

However, the proteolytic enzymes that allow them to make a hole in the cocoon also cause the silk fibers to break. To prevent this from happening, farmers boil the cocoons before the pupae are ready to emerge, resulting in unbroken threads and a lot of dead silkworms as a byproduct of the process. Rather than allowing the pupae to go to waste, they’re then served as nhon mhai, beondegi, or any of the other cultural varieties of the dish.

As a longtime fan of “Survivor,” I have watched numerous gross-food eating challenges and wondered how I would fare if Jeff Probst presented me with beetle larvae or a tarantula. I usually pictured myself heroically swallowing it in a single gulp. But when I opened the can of silkworm pupae that I had purchased at a Korean grocery store, I realized that I was much more squeamish than I had ever anticipated.

While I might have been able to eat a silkworm directly out of the can for the chance at a million dollars, I couldn’t quite convince myself to do it for journalistic purposes. I had watched a few too many YouTube videos that described the off-putting pop of liquid that you’d experience upon biting into one. Instead, I followed a recipe that called for repeatedly soaking the silkworms in water, followed by marinating them in Sriracha and soy sauce and roasting them in the oven.

When I pulled them out of the oven, they still looked very much like a bunch of bugs, but at that point, I had spent over four hours trying to transform them into a palatable snack, so I knew that I needed to give them a try. I doused them in salt and popped one into my mouth. And honestly? It wasn’t so bad. If I had tried it without knowing what it was, I’m not sure I would have guessed that it was an insect.

Though I ultimately view my kitchen experimentation as somewhat of a success, the silkworms at Sugar Monk are handled in a much more delicate way, with a flavor that’s not just tolerable but strangely delightful.

If an entire treasure chest full of the little caterpillars still sounds somewhat overwhelming to you, the Topsy-Turvy cocktail might be a gentler introduction to entomophagy. The drink consists of gin, Pimm’s, and mezcal, as well as grapefruit, lime, and smoked chili bitters. It’s finished off with a sprinkle of sal de gusano, or worm salt, and a single silkworm as a garnish. Eating the garnish is, of course, not required, but it goes particularly well with the cocktail and, in my opinion, will only add to your overall experience.

Arrive thirsty to the Harlem bar, as you’ll be sure to want to try some of the other creations as well. Sugar Monk’s vast menu includes over 30 cocktails and features many exotic ingredients beyond the silkworms. The collaboration between award-winning mixologist Ektoras Binikos and photographer Simon Jutras creates an unforgettable sensory experience, thanks to the artful yet unconventional flavor combinations and the stunning presentation of each beverage.

Despite Sugar Monk’s best efforts, the fact remains that eating bugs just isn’t for everyone. But even if you’re unable to stomach a silkworm, you still might consider adding their cocoons to your skincare routine.

Korean skincare trends have had an enormous influence on today’s beauty industry, from the proliferation of sheet masks to the concept of “skip-care,” or the simplification of routines through the elimination of unnecessary steps. K-Beauty products do not shy away from strange substances; you can find creams consisting of anything from snail mucin to salmon eggs. It seems possible, then, that silkworm cocoons could be the next big hit in the Western world.

Readily available on sites like Amazon, the inexpensive cocoons can be purchased in quantities of one hundred for under $10. The product descriptions claim that the cocoons serve as a gentle exfoliant with anti-aging and softening benefits, and whether or not you’re convinced, the low price point makes them worth a try. They thankfully arrive without any lingering silkworms, and they look and feel just as you might expect, fuzzy and hollow, with an opening perfectly fitted to a fingertip.

It’s recommended to first soak the cocoons in hot water, which helps to release sericin, a protein that acts as a gum to hold the fibers together. Sericin has long been praised for its antioxidant and moisturizing properties, and it’s possible that you’ve previously used a product containing the protein without even realizing it. By rubbing the cocoons gently on your face, it’s thought that the sericin will work to seal in moisture and keep the skin hydrated.

If you grew up in the United States, it’s likely that bugs were an unwelcome presence anywhere in your household, much less on your dinner plate, and having a fear of bugs is unsurprising. But if you start to examine the logic behind your phobia, you might find that insects are not quite as gross as you were previously conditioned to believe. And through the broadening of your horizons, it's possible that you'll come across your new favorite snack or the missing secret to your skincare routine.