Bite into a bug

Snack on a bag of lightly salted crickets. End your workout with a cold glass of whey protein made from ground bugs. Hand your children strawberry lollypops embedded with scorpions. Does the idea of crunching through ants, worms and caterpillars make your skin crawl? Get over it — and fast. Insects are all set to become the planet’s next biggest food source. And as part of the effort to make them a more conventional food source, innovative chefs, avant garde snack companies and eco-conscious organisations are finding inventive ways to conquer the ‘yuck’ factor.

Enter companies like California-based Hotlix, which proudly calls itself “the original edible insect candy creator”. They make everything from banana-flavoured lollypops embedded with scorpions to larva, which comes in three comforting flavours: BBQ, Cheddar Cheese or Mexican Spice. Then come the restaurants, the most trendy of which is Copenhagan-based Noma. Commonly acknowledged to be the ‘best restaurant in the world’, Noma founded the influential ‘Nordic Food Lab’, which does intensive and practical research to find ways to make ‘inedibles edible’, by finding ways to make insects delicious.

For brave home cooks, there are now helpful recipe books. Start with the Eat A Bug Cookbook: 33 ways to cook grasshoppers, ants, waterbugs, spiders, centipedes, and their kin. Then there’s Creepy Crawly Cuisine, which hand-holds you through your first insect hunt, then gives you tips on storage and preparation. (Their gourmet recipes include Stink Bug Paté, Curried Grasshoppers and Agave Worms in White Wine Sauce.

The buzz intensified when the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) released a report last year titled Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. It estimated that the world will host nine billion people by 2050, adding that meeting nutrition challenges — there are nearly one million chronically hungry people worldwide — “what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated”. Insects, it was pointed out, already form the traditional diet of at least two billion people. More than 1,900 varieties are used as food. Highly nutritious, they are a healthy food source, packed with protein, fibre, good fats and essential minerals. Additionally, they’re easier — and cheaper — to raise than livestock since they require less food, water and land.

While it might sound bizarre to a bug newbie, currently 36 African countries are “entomophagous” (there’s your new word of the day!), and so are 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and 11 in Europe. In Latin America, chapulines (an edible grasshopper) are toasted in oil with garlic, lemon and salt. In Uganda, termites are steamed in banana leaves and then eaten. In Japan, sun-dried grasshoppers are cooked in soy sauce and sugar as a snack. South East Asia alone consumes between 150 and 200 types of insects. They even have a calendar listing what is available when: grasshoppers in January, red ants in February and mole crickets in March. Even as I research this story, a colleague tells me about Tamil Nadu’s ghee-fried eesals (those fatly content insects that daydream on your tube-lights on rainy days.)

Last year, at Slow Food’s AsiO Gusto meeting in Namyangju (South Korea) where sustainability was a key topic, I met Benedict Reade, head of culinary research and development at the Nordic food lab. Although Slow Food was essentially started in Rome in the 1980s to counter the damaging effects of fast food, it’s grown beyond its mandate into an eco-gastronomic movement, working with grassroots organisations, chefs and opinion leaders from around the world to promote food that is ‘good, clean and fair’, and protect biodiversity.

On the subject of how insects can feed the world, provided the world is willing to eat them — Reade comes up with a practical solution. “You can’t force people to taste something new. But give the fact that insects are a potential food source, it’s time we start finding ways to make them acceptable,” he says. Noma’s cunningly named ‘Pestival’ included for a London event titled: ‘Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects’ eased people in with fun food that was — at least at first — faintly familiar. An Anty-Gin and Tonic with wood ants. A Chimp Stick, consisting of liquorice root with seeds, fruits, herbs, and ants. Then came the Moth Mousse, Cricket Broth and butter roasted desert locust. Saying that “amazing nature supplies us with beautiful ingredients, but we have a population that does not appreciate it,” Reade says “Deliciousness is sustainability. People understand quality in their mouths.”


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Punjab: More than just mustard fields

We start writing our list on the train. “Golden Temple, Jallianwalla Bagh and Wagah, obviously,” says the good-looking boy sitting beside us, striking up a conversation mid-journey. (Much to our delight.) All of us had boarded the train in Delhi early in the morning, amid cries of chai-chai and promises of ‘garam, garam bread omelette’ from passing vendors. My two friends and I are on our way to Amritsar on a sudden whim to explore what’s possibly India’s most gracious city.

Mystery boy tells us he grew up in Amritsar and it has the “best food in the world”. We smile politely, dismissing it as loyal hyperbole. Till everyone around chimes in. “Oh those papad-wadis,” sighs one lady. “Alu kulchas” says another. Mystery boy takes over, “Beera chicken. Kesar dhabha. Amritsari fish at Makhan. Kulchas on Maqbool road…”

Disembarking at Amritsar station, we find our way to Hong Kong hotel, chosen for its fantastic parathas. By the time we wash the railway grime off our hands, the cheery owner has sent a man to our room with hot alu parathas served with packs of Amul butter and ginger tea. He’s also sent a list of places we should eat at. But our friend and self-appointed guide in Amritsar, the inexhaustible Harleen calls to warn us not to eat too much, because she has her own list. We pile into her car and begin with Brijwasi’s mixed chaat filled with snappy papdi, spongy bhalla (fried balls of urad dal, that have been spiced and soaked in yoghurt) and finely chopped potato. All topped with a squiggle of sweet tamarind chutney.

We take a breather at the Pakistani market, in a shop piled with bolts of cloth like a fabric library. The deliciously gaudy cloth unfurls displaying traditional pieces heavy with gold embroidery, but also funky prints, reminiscent of Masaba Gupta’s work, with unexpected icons like oversized pink safety pins. From there we wander through ‘Chor Bazaar’ with its knock off ‘designer’sunglasses, perfumes yellowed with age and overly amorous shopkeepers. Then it’s time to fortify ourselves with bhel puri, served from a small window just below a gun shop that advertises itself with a massive cut-out of a rifle suspended above. It’s rather surreal, all of us bundled up in pashminas, cautiously balancing a massive cone of bhel puri, crisp puffed rice laced with golden sev, black salt and lemon juice.

Dinner’s at Brother’s dhaba with unabashedly pink walls, where sarson ka saag arrives topped with a fat cube of rapidly melting butter. Following advice from Harleen and her husband, we head to the Golden Temple at 3 a.m. Although it’s freezing when we emerge from the warm car, we’re thrilled to see it glittering between arched pillars. Inside, as we soak up its prayerfully charged atmosphere we’re handed bowls made of woven leaves filled with freshly made, hot wheat halwa, drippy with ghee. As we exit, a man in a majestic turban beckons us to the langar area, where they pass us bright green plastic cups and a carefully torn section of newspaper. Volunteers with stainless steel jugs pour steamy tea into our glasses. The tea is fragrant with an unexpected flavour. Saunf (fennel seed.) “Good for your stomach,” smiles a passing lady.

We’re up at 7 a.m. because Harleen has promised us puri-chole at Kanahya’s. Waiting for a table, we watch three cross-legged cooks sitting solemnly frying puris in massive iron kadais dark with age. Inside, we are handed plates, onto which waiters ladle channa and potato in a jaggery-tamarind sauce. Teamed with fluffy puris and washed down with tall tumblers of thick lassi topped with chunky cream, it’s possibly the best meal of the trip.

Studying our constantly expanding list, we make a quick stop at Makhan for fish encased in a crisp ajwain-laced batter, then head out to buy wadi-papad. The papads are liberally speckled with pepper. The wadi is a neat clump of urad dal laced with pepper and red chillies. Next, we speed to Wagah for the chest-thumping border ceremony. On the way back, we manage to fulfil all our secret Yash Chopra ambitions by skipping through the gorgeously yellow mustard fields. Admittedly we look more like happy goats than sultry heroines. But still. At least we’ve ticked off 60 per cent of that list!

Tarla Dalal’s Dal-Bhat-Roti-Sabzi

Cooking has never been more ostentatious. Today’s chefs aspire to be seductive, multi-faceted renegades. As for Tarla Dalal? She was simply pragmatic. Practicality might not make for riveting television. In theory. Yet, Twitter has been abuzz with the news of her passing away on Wednesday. Just the day before, social networking sites were filled with news of the death of Chef Charlie Trotter from Chicago, whose eponymous trail-blazing restaurant introduced America to the idea of organic, seasonal and vegetarian food in the late 1980s.

Given this is the age of experimental cooking, with complex equipment, exotic ingredients and convoluted techniques, it’s interesting that these self-taught, no-nonsense, old-style chefs have made such an impact on the Twitter generation. But then Dalal’s strength was her realistic approach to everyday cooking. Despite her unassuming manner and unpretentious recipes she made such a powerful impact that home cooking in India can be divided into pre and post-Dalal. After all, this was a country where women did the everyday cooking, learning traditional recipes from their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers. Which meant home-cooked food was always the food of your own region, community and culture. Dalal’s books changed that by bringing together popular recipes from the North, South, East and West in a seductively simple format, encouraging readers to experiment with new spices, flavours and ideas. Her first book, The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking, published in 1974, was instantly successful with Indian housewives who went on to become her biggest market over the next four decades. It sold a record 1,50,000 copies in total.

I met her for the first time in 2007, soon after she got a Padma Shri. Faintly bewildered by all the attention, (our conversation was interrupted every few minutes by excited women brandishing their old, yellowing, spice-stained copies of her books, asking for autographs) she said the award astonished her. “When someone told me on the phone, I said ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ I was surprised,” she said, shaking her head incredulously, “But it gave me great happiness. Nobody has been given a Padma Shri for cooking before!”

Despite having written over 100 books, which have been translated into various languages from Marathi to Russian, selling more than 3 million copies around the world, she insisted that she never intended to build an empire. “After the first book I told myself… that’s more than enough. I can’t write more than one book. Never in my life did I think I would end up writing so many.”

Staunchly old fashioned, she maintained that girls should learn to cook to please the men in her lives. Coming from her, it sounded more endearing than anti-feminist because she so earnestly believed in food as an expression of love. When she was engaged her husband, who was then studying Chemical Engineering at Michigan University in the U.S. would write to her about food. She said, “He used to write saying he wanted to eat this and that; all complicated things I had never heard of… I was 20 years old and could cook only DBRS.” (This, by the way, is where I first learnt that old-fashioned acronym for ‘Dal Bhat Roti Sabzi’.)

When they got married in 1960, she moved to Mumbai. By 1966, she was teaching cooking from home. Once the first book launched, her career began snowballing. She went on to host a cooking show, publish a bi-monthly magazine and run one of India’s largest food websites.

Astutely choosing to cater to a mass market, she standardised and simplified recipes, using local ingredients and simple techniques. I once watched her teach a crowd of women how to make a cheesecake, which started out as a mousse. “Add more cocoa and that’s one variation,” she said. Then, she told the audience to add flour and baking powder to turn it into a hot chocolate pudding. Finally, she mixed in a couple of spoons of supermarket cheese spread then poured it over a base of crushed digestive biscuits. For the cream, she suggested soya cream, telling people, “buy two litres and keep it in the freezer. It stays for a year.”

Are the food snobs horrified? Well, yes, her recipes are not high-brow, astonishing or even particularly challenging. But they are always economical, flexible and forgiving. Dalal was smart enough to figure one unchanging fact of life: even flamboyant cooks sometimes just want to make kichadi for dinner. In the end, it’s the DBRS that keeps us going.

Soju bombs and veggie epiphanies: Slow Food Korea

We begin with soju bombs. A Korean friend shows us how to line up two metal chopsticks on a mug of beer, and balance a shotglass of soju on top. Then, she bangs her fist against the wobbly table dislocating the chopsticks so the shotglass falls into the beer mug. “Now drink,” she grins. We obediently lift our soju-spiked beer.

I’m in Namyangju, a lush-green town about an hour away from Seoul, in South Korea to attend Slow Food’s first AsiO Gusto, which brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and opinion-makers from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries. While most of the days are devoted to conferences dedicated to finding ways to protect food traditions and their custodians, mealtimes are reserved for exploring local food. Barbeque and soju bombs, just like Psy and Gangnam may be Korea’s best known exports, but they’re just one facet of an ancient, traditional and sturdy food culture.

Of course we try the barbeque, though. Popular culture is popular for a reason — it’s fun. At night we walk to an open air restaurant close to our hotel, drawn by their dramatically crackling fire. It’s cold and the owner — noticing us shivering — runs into the kitchen and emerges with bright fluffy blankets for each of us. The little round metal table has a cavity in the centre, into which a waiter places a tray of hot coals, covered with a grill. While the kitchen prepares the meat, we go into a side room, dominated by a loud television, and fill bowls with the traditional line up of starters: kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, spring onions to take to our tables. When the pork belly and chops arrive, they’re spread on the table grill to finish cooking, after which we pull out the blistering pieces with long tongs and eat them wrapped in lettuce, along with fat green chillies, sharp fresh garlic and a dipping sauce made with sesame oil.

Contrary to the Korean food stereotype, it’s not all meat. Lunch is often bibimbap, a bowl of rice artfully topped with bright vegetables, julienned cucumber, dark spongy mushrooms, long crunchy sprouts, emerald spinach and intensely orange-red bigochujang (chili pepper paste.) Salt is minimal and nothing is fried, but the vegetables are fresh, local and organic so flavours are intense. Slow Food’s focus is re-introducing people — especially children — to the joys of unprocessed food. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. I become a convert at a silent lunch, served by cooks who walk into a conference on ‘Food and Spirituality’ bearing flowers and candles. They hand each of us a clay tray. My heart sinks as I survey the meal: raw vegetables and barely-salted sticky rice with beans wrapped in a lotus leaf. Then I bite into the pumpkin, and my eyes widen at its sweet, intense, powerful flavour. The lotus stem is crisp, yet moisty. The mushroom, firm and juicy. For the first time in years, I cheerfully finish all my vegetables. And I don’t even need a soju bomb to end the meal.

Tteokbokki, snail cream & curly fries: Exploring Seoul

I’m going all Zero Dark Thirty on the egg-bread man. I narrow my eyes and take a step forward. “So is it baked?” He’s unfazed. “Try one,” he says in Korean, smiling widely. They look delicious. But I need answers, and it’s too early in the interrogation to snack. So I shake my head firmly. He hands me one anyway. As I pay, I turn to Narae Yun, my friend-guide-interpreter in Seoul. “Ask him how he makes egg-bread.” She translates. He shrugs, pulls another tray out of the oven and chuckles mysteriously. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself,” I say sulkily, taking a bite and expecting it to taste like breakfast. However Gaeran Bbang is a world away from conventional eggs and bread. It’s light, fluffy and sweet, with an unexpected streak of salt and hit of fragrant spices. Reminiscent of donuts, nursery rhymes and Sunday mornings. I’m foxed. And more determined than ever to extract the recipe.

“Try again,” I ask Narae, holding up my notebook in an attempt to look intimidating. “He says there are 10 ingredients,” she translates. “Nutmeg?” I ask. He smiles. “Cinnamon?” Smile. “Mace?” Smile. I lean forward and glare, “Then what is in the batter.” As Narae listens to his answer, nodding her head thoughtfully, I smile victoriously. She turns to me seriously, “He says to tell you Indian women are very pretty.” Foiled. And now I’m too flattered to pick a fight.

Like Mr. Egg-Bread, Seoul is unexpectedly charming. I’m warned about insurmountable language barriers, live octopus dinners and dog soup before I go. A few days in the multi-faceted city prove that the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a caricature of the truth. While admittedly all three features exist, they’re certainly not the norm. The pulsating city is a blend of the familiar and exotic, especially when it comes to food. From my hotel in Hongdae, the hip university quarter, I explore coffee chains offering frappes, espressos and waffles, as well as quirky cafes. (Over breakfast a guest even tells me about a café where guests can pet lambs as they drink their cappuccinoes.) After shopping for quirky cocktail rings, ‘Gangnam’ style ankle socks and trying on South Korea’s famed ‘snail cream’ at a bright cosmetics store, Narae and I wander into a chic restaurant designed to look like a nursery school. The short menu offers interpretations of street food. We order tteokbokki: chewy glutinous rice tubes (called tteok) and fish cakes soaked in Korea’s signature fiery gochujang sauce. “All of us ate this after school,” says Narae, adding, “The idea is to remind people of their childhood.”

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme here. The food is closely linked to history, and locals are as sentimental about the past as they are enthusiastic about the inevitable wave of Westernised food. It’s an interesting balance: traditional tea houses, retro restaurants and multinational donut chains, all packed on any given night. Since we’re dabbling in history, we decide to eat Budae Jjigae for dinner. “It’s Soldier Stew,” says Narae, as the waiters hand us bibs to tie around our necks. I’m eyeing the bib suspiciously, as the table grill — a standard feature in most traditional Korean restaurant — is fired up, and the dish set on it is filled with spam, sausage, ham, rice cakes, kimchi inexplicable slices of American cheese and a broth. “We were very poor after the Korean War, so we made soup with whatever we could buy from the American soldiers,” says Narae, breaking a pack of instant noodles into the mix. The incongruous mixture of U.S. army rations spits and sizzles (hence the bib) as the ingredients merge and the broth cooks down, transforming the dish into a hearty stew.

The next day, I head to Gangnam to meet my hipster friend Joy Miryeo, who’s still recovering from last night’s party. Holding her head, she gingerly suggests we begin with lunch — a spicy seafood stew ideal for hangovers. The restaurant is stylishly dim, and reportedly a favourite with K-Pop stars. A heavy tray filled with squiggly octopus, juicy prawns and knobbly crab is set on the table grill, along with the ubiquitous tteok, sprouts and minari (Korean greens). As the broth thickens, it becomes increasingly rich, powerful and moreish.

We wander through Isadong’s warren of art galleries and souvenir shops after lunch, admiring the fish-shaped Bungeoppang (sweet cakes filled cinnamon-laced red bean paste). There are peculiar spiral cut potatoes, dipped in cheese and chilli powder. And dramatic but fairly tasteless ice cream hooks: foot long curly cones filled with vanilla ice cream. I sneakily eat a steaming Hotteok pancake, stuffed with molten brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts as a pre-dinner snack.

Dinner is Samgyeopsal at a noisy restaurant, where we swap stories and do soju (the local rice wine) shots. Equipped with dangerous-looking scissors and tongs, Joy expertly cuts luscious strips of pork, and cooks them along with kimchi on the table grill. Following custom, we wrap the meat in lettuce and sesame leaves along with sliced onions, sprouts and kimchi, before dipping it into a trio of powerful sauces.

Emboldened by the soju, we continue to party at Prost, a rollicking bar in Itaewon, popular with backpackers, tourists and American soldiers. More proof that Seoul has a flair for bringing diverse elements together — whether they’re ingredients, cultures or nationalities — to create an alluring brew.