Are insects the new sushi?
20 years ago it would have been almost unthinkable that millions would choose to dine on raw fish and seaweed instead of sandwiches for lunch. Will insects be the next foodie frontier?
Thu 25 May 2017
“We explore and expand the edible,” On Eating Insects: Stories, Essays and Recipes (by Josh Evans, Roberto Flore, Michael Bom Frøst and Nordic Food Lab, Phaidon), is the result of six years worth of work by the Nordic Food Lab who have taken up the mantle of investigating why the western world doesn’t eat insects. Essays, stories and recipes make up the substantial work, presented with stunning photography. It’s half field guide, half cookery book and we catch up with them to discuss all things creepy and crawly.
The Nordic Food Lab was founded in 2008 by then Noma owners Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer. It combines their passion for science, gastronomy and agriculture and pulls together experts to examine the big questions facing the food industry whilst recognising that for new ideas and ingredients to be embraced they have to be delicious. Its ethos is distilled into one line in the On Eating Insects introduction,
“The pursuit of good food is also the pursuit of biocultural diversity - the pursuit of a future where everyone can not only eat, but eat well."
And that pursuit has lead to them to consider how insects can add security and flavour to our meals. On Eating Insects is a vast-ranging study into the culture and cuisines that already eat insects and what we can learn from them as well as investigating the sustainable issues around what would happen if we all switched to eating grubs and grasshoppers. It’s an old-fashioned field study that harks back to Victorian adventurers for whom knowledge was the ultimate treasure.
I like that the discourse has become more and more complex. It’s not about the yuk factor or will insects save us
Feeding the world
It’s quite possible that by 2050 the global population will have hit nine billion. If the food industry carries on as it is, our food production needs to grow by 70%. But many reports (including one from the UN World Food Programme), say we have enough food to feed everyone if managed more efficiently and we drastically reconsidered our global diet.
“If you consider the whole world we need to be asking the right questions to know what to solve and how to do it,” says Michael Bom Frøst, a sensory scientist and a director at Nordic Food Lab, who helped write the book. “We have to look at nurturing the whole planet - we have the right resources but a wasteful system. If we were cautious and respectful for what we have we could feed 12 billion people. We need to look at how everything can be made more sustainable as we’re running out of resources to exploit."
Insects are not the total solution, but they’re an interesting segway into looking at culturally, what is edible and what is sustainable to produce. There's no point choosing to eat insects that environmentally cost too much to produce or have to be flown halfway around the world to be consumed.
“The answer is diversity,” says Frøst. “Diversity equals resilience - the more diverse our diets the more we have food security. If you’re excluding insects then that’s an important part of the diversity you’re losing.”
One of the areas the Nordic Food Lab is continuing to work is in people’s perceptions and reactions to insects as food, but Frøst points to the relatively quick adoption of raw fish, seaweed and fermented foods by cultures where these ingredients aren’t native.
“We’re facing increasingly rapid changes in food and we’re getting used to that. It took coffee and potatoes hundreds of years to become commonplace but in Denmark for example it’s only taken 20 years from the opening of the first sushi restaurant in 1993 and for the food to become even a 12 year old girl’s favourite dish," he says.
There’s no point skirting around it, insects have a yuk factor. But with over one million types in total and over 2,000 eaten all over the world, it’s difficult to come up with an answer to the question, “But what do they taste like?”
The team point out in the book that no one groups all birds or mammals together when talking about their taste, so it makes no sense to regard insects in the same way. On top of that, many cultures that eat insects don’t consider them to be so. Kenyans eat termites, lake flies and black ants, the Japanese wasps and scorpions, so the term ‘insect’ isn’t really applicable, because culturally these things are food not pests.
Insects also perform different functions in the kitchen and their taste changes with their age or development form. The book moves away from eating insects whole or by the handful (as some might imagine this is the only way to eat them), but uses them in different forms in complex recipes. No one would eat ants and expect to feel full for example, but the Nordic Food lab rate them for adding a sour kind of seasoning. There’s an Amazonian ant that tastes the same as lemongrass. Adult grasshoppers might not be your idea of a great snack, but by breaking them down through fermentation they provide a wonderfully rich umami flavour to add to stocks and sauces.
The Nordic Food Lab has come up with a series of recipes where the insect ingredient is both visible and non-visible to tackle pre-conceived ideas of taste and texture.
Diversity equals resilience - the more diverse our diets the more we have food security. If you’re excluding insects then that’s an important part of the diversity you’re losing
Would you eat peas with creamy white plump bee larvae? Bee larvae is actually very nutritious - with 50% protein and 20% unsaturated fats and the flavour changes on the flora and season, much like honey. Or how about a grasshopper garum where there were no legs or wings or crunchy things in sight? Garum is a traditional fermented fish sauce, and one of the earliest food products to be traded.
“The insect garums which we create with fermentation taste of the raw materials,” explains Frøst. “They’re not fish or plants but have their own taste.”
It’s also worth noting that the practise of eating insects is nothing new. Our food might come pre-packaged and covered in plastic today but for centuries, the landscape was your supermarket and whatever was edible was on the menu. For example, Sardinians have for centuries considered casa marzu (rotten cheese) a delicacy - cheese infested with fly larvae, it’s a pungent cream smeared on bread with the larvae still wriggling and harks back to a simple, less wasteful way of life, when shepherds ate what they had.
Insects as income
Throughout the book, On Eating Insects, the team delight in venturing down the side issues of eating insects, considering with care, the cultural, physical and procedural effects of a world more interested in eating insects.
“I like that the discourse has become more and more complex. It’s not about the yuk factor or will insects save us,” explains Frøst. “It’s about a complex system and how many different factors there are setting up a sustainable system.”
Each area and climate has its own challenges, from making sure people are paid fairly for the collection of weaver ants or giant water bugs in Thailand for example. But there is a case for insect production as an extra income stream whether in Denmark or Delhi.
Bee larvae could be a substantial byproduct income for bee-keepers.
“Bee larvae harvesting is just logistics,” says Frøst. “We can help apiculturalists economically by creating bee larvae harvesting systems. There not a lot of money to be made in honey and we rely heavily on healthy bee populations for pollination. Removing bee larvae from hives also keeps down the infection rate so there’s a closed loop positive system that can be implemented.”
In Kenya, the farming of crickets has become a way of supporting themselves for some single women. Monica Ayieko is an associate professor at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science at Technology (JOOUST) at Bondo in Kenya. She farms 64kg of crickets every six weeks and is teaching other women to do the same. Despite many Kenyans eating what the western world would consider insects, crickets are a new concept as a food source.
“A difference is that the resistance here is not to insects - it is to certain types, species and stages,” Ayeiko told the Nordic Food Lab team. “The Westerners for a long time would say none of them are food but not all that the Westerners do is correct. People here are waking up and saying ‘Hey our foods were better, they didn’t have all these chemicals.’ People are rediscovering their traditional foods: local plants and insects. And maybe we can help these traditions develop and grow."