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.”