The dawning realization we've eaten our way through the food chain has put insect eating onto the epicurean radar BY ANNE KINGSTON
The Vancouver Indian fusion restaurant Vij’s is a top-of-thefood-chain kind of place—cool decor, stellar reviews, discerning patrons willing to wait
hours for a table. So, in June, when proprietors Vickram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala introduced cricket paratha, a flatbread made from a creature so lowly it’s often crushed underfoot, media outlets as far afield as France were abuzz.
Publicity was never the intent, says Vij. Rather, he and Dhalwala, his wife and Vij’s chef, were inspired by the environmental and nutritional benefits of insect eating. The crick-
ets, roasted and ground, are unidentifiable in the flatbread; they’re mixed in with chapad flour and seasoned with jalapeno, cilantro, salt and ground cumin. “It tastes like whole wheat bread,” says Vij, who says reception has been generally positive. They’re considering adding other insect dishes, perhaps grasshoppers. “I’m not interested in a Fear Factor menu,” Vij explains. “I want a menu that’s well-balanced and versatile that everyone can enjoy.”
Consuming insects knowingly—and enjoyably—in a celebrated Canadian restaurant would have been unfathomable a decade ago. Downing the creepy and crawly was the purview of Survivor gross-out challenges. Gastronomically, it was limited to the ballsy derring-do escapades of chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Bizarre Food’s Andrew Zimmern. Exposure to what are dietary staples and delicacies in two-thirds of the world meant a visit to the Insectarium de Montréal with its displays of mopane worms in canned chili from South Africa, canned silkworm chrysalises from Korea, and queen ant wine from China. Or attending insect-noshing events at natural history museums, staged to garner media attention, which they did, with press treating the event like a page from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
But the dawning realization that we’ve
eaten our way through the food chain is forcing a rethink of the Western palate. And with that, insect-eating, or entomophagy to use its loftier identifier, is inching onto the epicurean radar. The North American pioneer is Typhoon, a Pan-Asian fusion restaurant in the Santa Monica airport that has served insects—Taiwanese stir-fried crickets, Singapore-style scorpions with shrimp toast, and ‘Chambi Ants,” potato strings sprinkled with the tiny black picnic pests—since it opened in 1991Adventurous Mexican restaurants have also brought indigenous delicacies like escamóles, ant larvae, into the culinary mainstream. When Espitas in Dresden, Germany,
put maggots, which are fly larvae, on the menu in 2005—in ice cream, salads and cocktails—customers flocked for a taste. Toloache, a midtown Manhattan Mexican restaurant, opened last year with a house speciality—a chapuline taco, Filled with whole dried grasshoppers.
Now, though, insects are no longer exotic novelties like the Colombian queen ants handdipped in Belgian chocolate sold at Harrods, or the scorpion lollipops available at the candy store chain Sugar Mountain. In June, Blue
Elephant, a bistro in Providence, R.I., added silkworm chowder, cricket kabobs and a crème brûlée made with Thai water bug essence to the menu. “Everybody who has tried them, loves them,” says owner and chef Joshua Selle. Chris Schaefer, Typhoon’s director of operations, says interest in insect eating has exploded over the past few months. They’ve been deluged with media inquiries, and film crews from London and Paris have visited, he says.
Bug-eating adherents have been skulking on the fringes since Vincent Holt wrote his 1885 manifesto, Why Not Eat Insects? Now, with oil above US$120 a barrel and dire predictions about The End of Food, to echo the title of Paul Roberts’ new book, they’re seen as prophetic, not eccentric. David George Gordon, the Seattle-based science writer and author of TheEat-a-Bug Cookbook, has been a tireless proponent of entomophagy for more than a decade. “Insects are the most valuable, underused and delicious animals in the world,” says Gordon, who consulted with Vij’s. “It reminded me of a drug deal,” he says of the process. “Because I was passing along baggies with dried crickets to give them an idea of what’s available.”
Lowly insects, once the enemies of agriculture, are the imperilled food supply’s new heroes, according to a symposium held in Taiwan in February, convened by the United
Nations to promote insect eating in developing countries as a solution to the global food crisis. Bugs’ new status hinges on their eco-cred: their carbon footprint is teensy; of all species, they’re the most energy-efficient converters of food to protein. “Cows and pigs are the SUVs, bugs are the bicycles,” says David Gracer, a Providence-based English teacher whose second career as a high-profile entomophagy advocate landed him on The Colbert Report in February. Zachary Lemann, staff entomologist at the
Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, does the math: “You’ve got to feed about 10 lb. of grain to a cow to get one lb. of edible beef. Insects are much better at that conversion, almost one to one,” he says. Crickets deliver twice as much edible tissue as pigs and almost six times as much as steers based on the same food input, says Gracer. They also reproduce at a far faster rate. Their end-of-the-foodchain status means many are herbivores, consuming healthy, low-fat diets. Nutritionally, insects often outperform
hoppers contain cent protein livestock. about and 60 six per Grasscent per fat when cooked; the same serving of hamburger con-
tains 18 per cent protein and 18 per cent fat. The lowly cricket has awesome nutritional value: each 100 g of dehydrated tissue has 1,550 mg of iron (three provide daily requirements), 340 mg of calcium, and 25 mg of zinc. “Two hundred and fifty adult crickets equal 250 calories and only six grams of fat,” says Gordon. “A cup of crickets mixed with other things is a meal.” Insects provide balanced nutrition, says Lemann, though this content varies. (With their wooden diet, termites tend to be carb-heavy, he says. Though
NUTRITIONALLY, INSECTS OFTEN OUTPERFORM TRADITIONAL LIVESTOCK
that wasn’t a problem for Theo Rosmulder, who survived four days in the Australian outback last month feasting on insects before being rescued by local Aborigines. “Termites don’t taste too bad,” the 52-year-old former exterminator told reporters.)
Clearly the survival instinct can trump revulsion over consuming bugs knowingly. (Unknowingly, we swallow about a pound a year, in packaged food and airborne, says Gordon.) But this reflex is culturally conditioned, says psychologist Heather Looy, who, with entomologist John Wood, a fellow professor at the King’s University College in Edmonton, has been studying our aversion to eating bugs since 1995“We incorrectly lump all bugs together,” she says. “We see all as contaminants; we associate them with bad hygiene, feces and disease with no contradictory imagery.” There’s also the exoskeleton, the appendages, the weird eyes, even though we covet other animals with these
characteristics: crustaceans—shrimp, crabs, lobsters, all arthropods, just like crickets. Vij claims insects can be superior: “Prawns from Thailand are far worse for you than crickets grown in a controlled environment.”
Food aversions can be overcome, Looy observes. Sushi was once repellent to many, until Japan’s role as an economic superpower made it fashionable in the 1980s. Cultural snobbery influences what we eat, she notes.
“The cultures that eat insects are not cultures we emulate,” Looy says. The arrival of crickets at Vij’s is a milestone: “Food preferences shift when people of status or tastemakers enjoy that food,” she says.
Entomophagists agree there’s much to learn about insects, though all concur eating bugs live, à la Survivor, is a no-no. Gracer is judicious about which bugs he’ll eat, sourcing them from known suppliers. “You go by their food supply, their role in the ecosystem and what entomologists know about them,” he says. Nor is anyone suggesting all
insects be eaten. A culinary pantheon is emerging: at the top, crickets, said to taste like sunflower seeds or shrimp, hence their nickname “land shrimp.” (Euphemisms such as “mini-livestock,” “micro-livestock” and “land shrimp” blur “bug” associations, in the same way the term “sweetbreads” eased acceptance of the thymus glands of animals.) Gracer likes water or “stink” bugs, named for their chemical defence systems: “They
taste herby and slightly bitter, a cross between kale and cilantro.” Gordon favours wax worms, honeyfed caterpillars, which he uses frozen to make cookies. His signature dish is orthopteran orzo, a warm pasta salad made with crickets. “One kid told me, ‘This is way better than anything my mom makes,’ ” he says.
Acceptance will come with exposure, says Lemann, whose “chocolate chirp cookies” made with crickets mask the insects’ texture and taste. And resistance is bound to weaken with the fantastical claims surrounding some bugs; giant queen ants from Colombia, for example, are said to contain a natural form of Viagra and a protein-rich defence against cancer.
Artificial farming too will lessen insects’ associations with filth. Dutch researchers are using biotechnology to mass-produce isolated
ovary cells of a medley of insects, which will deliver insect protein minus the icky eyes and legs. The goal, Marjoleine Verkerk of Wageningen University told Science News earlier this year, is to produce a sanitized source of bug proteins that can be dried and added to breads or moulded into pseudo-burgers. Shudder if you want. But the arrival of President’s Choice Grasshopper Kebabs and Land Shrimp and Orzo Stir-fry is only a matter of time. M
ON THE WEB: For bug recipes visit www.macleans.ca/lnsects
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