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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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.

The Coriander Club

The well-worn wooden cart piled high with piles of gleaming brinjals, bright chillies and fragrant coriander leaves might still pass by your window every day. But as more and more people choose to drive their trendy SUVs to one of the massive supermarkets — springing up all over every big city in India — to buy their fruits and vegetables, it could eventually become a thing of the past.

Fortunately, in the United Kingdom, farmers are fighting back. And, perhaps it is because of recent food scares and worries about genetically modified food. Or a mounting concern for the environment. Or, a more selfish quest for food that doesn’t taste travel-weary. But British consumers are now insisting on eating and buying local produce, as they now want to know where, and how, their food originated.

Emerging phenomenon

Which explains why farmers’ markets are getting increasingly popular across the United Kingdom. Started in London a little over 10 years ago, these (usually weekly) markets bring together groups of local farmers, with their produce.

The National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) — which has approximately 7,000 members and 225 markets under its wings — stipulates that all this produce must be from within a radius of ideally 30 miles, but never more than 100 miles. Anything made by the stallholder, such as the bronzed crusty breads and moist carrot cakes displayed enticingly at these markets, has to contain fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. And the farmer or a direct representative must be present at every stall, to talk to customers and answer questions.

At the little Wednesday farmers’ market in Finchley, London, for example, Peter and Joan Clarke never leave their makeshift counter, set up in front of their van. As he unloads crate after crate of appealing vegetables — some plucked a few hours ago at their Kingcup Farm in Denham, which is about 16 miles away — he says their chats with customers are an essential part of their business. Besides urging them to try new, exotic vegetables, (“Baby leeks can be steamed. They’re delicious with a cheese sauce.”) the couple also get ideas about new crops to grow. “That’s how we have mooli and saag, suggested by Indians,” he grins. He grows 70 different varieties of vegetables, 30 of which were spread out in vibrant piles at the market that day.

Peter says that these markets are beneficial for both the farmers and the people who buy from them, as the food they supply is always fresh, and therefore both nutritious and tasty, with intense flavours and colours. For farmers, markets like this aren’t just a way to connect with customers. It also means they finally get to bypass the middlemen, and shun supermarket chains, notorious for their draconian rules.

Big supermarket chains place ridiculous conditions on farmers, such as insisting every apple has to have a uniform diameter of 2.5 inches. A report by “Friends of the earth”, called “Supermarkets and Great British Fruit” (2002), gives the results of a survey done with 100 apple and pear growers, who said any fruit with minor skin blemishes gets rejected, along with “apples that are either not red enough, or too red”. As a result, fruit is left on the orchard floor or simply dumped. More than half the farmers stated that they have to apply more pesticides to “meet cosmetic standards”. It’s not just fruit. Felicity Lawrence, journalist and author of Not on the Label says, that for every 30 tonnes of carrots harvested, just 10 tonnes are used.

More variety

At a farmers’ market, you see varieties of seasonal food you are unlikely to find anywhere else, especially at this price range. Peter Clarke, for instance, has five piles of carrots, each a different colour — creamy white, sunshine yellow and different shades of orange — in his stall.

“Since some fruits and vegetables don’t travel well, like some heritage varieties of tomatoes, which have thin skins, you won’t find them in supermarkets,” says Sue Thompson, Spokesperson and Certification Manager for FARMA. “So farmers’ markets around the world have been a lifeline to rare varieties of fruits and vegetables and breeds of meat.” For instance, there are more than 2,000 varieties of native U.K. apples. But in the world of supermarkets there are may be 20.

Organisers like Cheryl Cohen, director of London Farmer’s Markets (which sets up and administers London’s 15 certified farmers’ markets), actively search for farmers who offer more than the routine foods. “We have some Japanese farmers on the South Coast, who are growing lovely leafy Japanese vegetables,” she says, “And there are a group of Asian women growing Asian vegetables at the Spitalfields City Farm (at London’s East End) who call themselves the `Coriander club’, who we would love to include in our markets.” (These Bangladeshi women, who come from the surrounding borough of Tower Hamlets, grow traditional herbs and vegetables.)

Local sourcing of this sort reduces lorry and plane “food miles”. FARMA estimates that the ingredients for an air-freighted British Sunday lunch creates 37 kg of greenhouse gases. When bought from a local market, on the other hand, just 38.2 grams are released. That’s a dramatic reduction of 99.8 per cent.

But perhaps the best thing about a market of this sort is the chance to enjoy the oasis of warm “small town” community feeling that invariably springs up as farmers lay out their produce, and exchange recipes and storage tips with each other and passers-by.

Vibrant community

On a typical day, you’ll see a cyclist discussing routes with the baker, as he balances his helmet and a slice of spongy foccaccia on one side, while the feta cheese stall owner charms a wide-eyed tourist into tasting, then buying a hunk of his garlicky, crumbly cheese. Kids run between the rows of vegetables, pulling and poking at them in fascination, and in a corner the delicious smell of barbequed burgers rises, as a farmer in a striped apron works his fragrant grill.

And sales talk is both gentle and affectionate. “You can feel the difference here,” says Gina, a young graduate who moved from Australia to the Perry Court family farm in Kent (“because this is so much nicer than the office”) holding out a gang of plump onions for a customer. “It’s in the richness of the flavours… It just tastes so much more real.”

Easy Exotic (or The Day The Emu almost Ate Me.)

Eat an emu? After coming beak to nose with one of the more nasty
representatives of the emu dynasty, I’d rather eat my hat. (Reebok.
Pink. Goes great with my new running shoes. Just in case you need the
whole picture.) It’s a good thing I had those pink running shoes on,
in hindsight. I had been absent-mindedly rambling around the Melbourne
zoo when I heard a furtive little emu cough. I turned and froze with
terror. Emu and I were beak to nose. Apparently he wanders about the
zoo, sneaking up on unsuspecting visitors for fun. He stared. I smiled
apologetically. He deliberated on which of my ears to bite first. I
politely pointed out the chubby chimpanzees. He squinted. I ran.
Eat an emu? You’ve got to be kidding. They look like they’ll make
quick notes on your appearance, send it out via some creepy
ornithological Blackberry system and, before you know it, organize
rabid gangs of their feathered flightless friends grunting
threateningly at your door.
Yet, it makes sense to eat an emu. Or a kangaroo. Or an alligator.
(Try a barbecued emu, alligator tail steak sirloin, kangaroo pie.)
Increasingly, a section of the world’s environmentalists are urging
people to expand their food horizons for the sake of diversity. This
way species that are threatened because they are so popular on the
table, like the blue finned tuna fish, get a break. And, lesser known
species get farmed more.
Unfortunately, it sometimes translates into a whole new form of food
snobbery: Who ate what. With snotty gourmets trying to outdo each
other, it’s inevitable that you sometimes end up being in the middle
of a situation as outrageous as the movie, The Freshman (1990) in
which Mathew Broderick ends up babysitting a komodo dragon for a
ridiculous gourmet club where exotic and endangered animals are served
for dinner.
In a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction, the National
Geographic recently reported on how a rare quail from the Philippines
was photographed for the first time before being sold as food at a
poultry market. This buttonquail, known solely through drawings based
on dated museum specimens collected several decades ago, might just
have been the last of its species!
Slow Food, an influential, inspirational worldwide organisation that
promotes sustainable eating is gearing up for its dramatic 2009
edition of ‘Slow Fish’, which will be held between April 17 and 20 in
Genoa, Italy. Elisa Virgillito, of Slow Food, talks of how Slow Fish
promotes responsible fish consumption, which keeps in mind the the
health of sea and fresh water ecosystems.
Of course, it’s not easy to change ingrained food habits. Which is why
Eliza says that this year they even have “an expert who can accompany
visitors around the fish market, assisting them to discover the wide
variety of the fish available and to point out lesser-known species
that are also highly tasty.”
The movement succeeds because they focus on the pleasures of eating
good food, instead of using emotional blackmail to get their message
across. So, to stop people from eating bluefin tuna and swordfish,
both of which are over-fished, they are gathering talented chefs and
food artisans to demonstrate recipes with lesser-known species like
palamita (Atlantic bonito), blue whiting or scabbardfish, which taste
as good, if not better, and often cost less too.
Since Slow Food focuses on eating local, representatives from around
the world will be talking about local flavours made with ingredients
that have never seen the inside of a plane. Italy will be showcasing
sandwiches made from butter and Monterosso anchovies, marinated horse
mackerel, grilled cuttlefish with purple asparagus and the finest
farmed mussels with extra-virgin olive oil. From Spain, the region of
Galicia, which has used seaweed in its cooking for centuries, will
exhibit a kaleidoscope of recipes featuring seaweed.
We certainly live in a weird and wonderful world. So keep an open
mind. And if you can dodge the bad-tempered emu gang, perhaps you’ll
enjoy a gorgonzola stuffed emu roast or — here’s a surprise — emu