Eating ant eggs is common in Mexico, where they're called escamoles, and in Thailand, where they're used as a tart accent to salads, omelets, and other dishes. In Chicago, though, the ant eggs and pupae of the type usually consumed are few and far between. So when Tony Lomanto and Anthony Alfonsi of Kuma's Corner challenged Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp to create a dish with ant eggs, the Honey Butter Fried Chicken chefs had to do some searching.
After looking online with no luck they started asking other chefs for sources, which led them to Iliana Regan of Elizabeth. "I thought that made perfect sense because she does a lot of foraging," Cikowski says. "In the back of my head I thought, 'Maybe she'll go find us some out in the nature.' But she had some dried ones."
Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp
Kulp says that while fresh ant eggs are white and creamy (a conclusion he reached from reading about them, since he's never actually seen fresh ant eggs), the dried ones are small and dark. "The bag we have seems to be a mixture of ant eggs and actual ants," he says. Cikowski adds, "You can kind of see the little bodies—they're like little friends in there."
The eggs taste salty and tart, Cikowski says, and smell oddly like coffee beans. She and Kulp used them two ways, sticking to what they know best: fried chicken wings. For a Thai twist, they made a fish-sauce caramel with jalapeño, red onion, garlic, lemongrass, and sugar cooked together until sticky; after being fried the wings are glazed with the caramel and tossed with ant eggs and fried garlic bits. On top goes a garlicky aioli made with lemongrass and ant eggs (crushed together with a mortar and pestle, which Cikowski says makes the eggs smell like cumin), egg yolk, and the oil in which the garlic was fried, plus a bit of salt and vinegar.
You really can taste the ant eggs in the chicken wings, the chefs say, particularly in the aioli. "Especially if you get one of the crunchy bits, it's kind of this pop of . . . ant," Cikowski says. But while both chefs agree that the dish is delicious enough to go on the menu, they're not sure people would order it. "Maybe if we don't mention the ant-egg component," Kulp says.
Fish-sauce-caramel wings with ant-egg crumble and ant-egg mayo
Kulp and Cikowski have challenged Sarah Jordan of Johnny's Grill to create a dish with vital wheat gluten. "She's known for her burgers, so we thought it would be good to give her something that's a meat alternative," Cikowski says.
Fish-Sauce-Caramel Wings, Ant-Egg Crumble, Ant-Egg Mayo
2 tablespoons rice bran oil (or other neutral oil)
1 tablespoon lemongrass, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ red onion, roughly chopped
1 jalapeño, stemmed and roughly chopped
¾ cup fish sauce
¾ cup water
1 cup sugar
Combine the oil, lemongrass, garlic, shallot, and jalapeño in a small, sturdy pot and heat on medium until the aromatics are softened and beginning to brown. Add the fish sauce, water, and sugar to the pan and stir together to combine. Simmer gently until sauce has reduced and coats the back of a spoon, about 20 minutes. Strain the sauce and reserve.
1 bulb garlic, finely minced
½ cup rice bran oil (or other neutral oil)
1 teaspoon dried ant eggs
Combine the garlic and oil in a small saute pan or pot and heat to medium, stirring frequently until the garlic is toasted and lightly browned, about five minutes. Be careful not to let the garlic get too
dark. Immediately remove the garlic from the pan by pouring over a fine mesh strainer. Reserve the garlic oil for the mayonnaise. Cool the garlic bits and then combine with the dried ant eggs and reserve to sprinkle on the wings.
1 teaspoon lemongrass, soft inside leaves only, minced
1 teaspoon dried ant eggs
1 egg yolk
½ cup garlic oil (from ant-egg crumble recipe)
1 cup rice bran oil (or other neutral oil)
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
Salt to taste
In a mortar and pestle, combine the lemongrass and dehydrated ant eggs and grind until the ant eggs are combined with the lemongrass into a paste. In a bowl, combine the ant egg and lemongrass mixture with the egg yolk and slowly trickle in the garlic oil and rice bran oil while whisking vigorously to create a mayonnaise. (Add a splash of water if the mixture becomes too thick.) Add the vinegar and season with salt to taste.
10 whole chicken wings
1 cup cornstarch
1 cup rice flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 quarts oil for frying (rice bran oil or other neutral high-heat oil such as peanut, grapeseed, or canola)
1 cup fish-sauce caramel
2 tablespoons ant-egg crumble
3 tablespoons ant-egg mayo
Combine the cornstarch, rice flour, and salt and toss the wings in the mixture to coat. Add the wings to 330-degree oil and fry until the wings are cooked through, crisped, and lightly colored, about ten minutes. Cool the wings and increase oil temperature to 360 degrees.
When ready to serve, heat the fish-sauce caramel over low heat to warm.
Add the wings to the hot oil and fry until crispy and golden, about five minutes. Remove the wings and let excess oil drain off. Place wings into a large bowl and add the caramel and toss to coat the hot wings. Add the ant-egg crumble to coat the wings as well. Season to taste with salt.
Serve the wings with a side of ant-egg mayo for dipping.