ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
UK AND NORTHERN EUROPE
1. Meadow grasshopper
2. Water boatman
3. Highland midges
4. Giant house spider
5. Greater wax moth larvae
6. Black soldier fly
7. Black garden ant
8. Speckled bush cricket
9. Common cockchafer
11. Common woodlouse
1. Cheese mites
2. June beetle
4. European red wood ant
5. Roman snail
6. Sea slater
7. European mantis
8. Cheese fly maggots
9. Mediterranean termite
1. Melon bug oil
2. Jewel Beetles
3. Lake midges
4. Emperor moth caterpillars
5. Bagworm moth pupae
6. Mopane worm
7. Hissing cockroach
8. Palm weevil larvae
9. Nsenene long-horned grasshoper
2. Honey bees
3. Giant water bug
4. Silkworm pupae
5. Caterpillar fungus
7. Red ants
8. Bamboo worms
9. Rhinoceros beetles
10. Black ants
11. Dung beetles
14. Hornets and wasps
2. Fat-arsed ants
3. Honey wasp
6. Lemon ants
8. White June bug
1. Maguey worms
3. Cottontree worm
5. Pandora moth
6. Stink bugs
1. Bogong moths
2. King Christmas beetle larvae
4. Witchetty grub
6. Honeypot ants
7. Stick insects
8. Huhu grub
10. Bardi grub
About the Book
The world cannot sustain our current levels of meat consumption. We are therefore left with two choices: go vegan, or eat insects. This book will show you how to do the latter.
Covering over 70 edible bugs from all over the globe, this comprehensive field guide tells you all you need to know to start eating the world’s most prolific protein resource.
From shaking ants out of trees deep in the heart of Thailand to foraging for woodlice in your back garden, this is the must-have travel companion for every adventurous foodie.
About the Author
Stefan Gates is a writer and broadcaster. In 2004, as a presenter and writer of the BBC2 series Full on Food, Stefan introduced the nation to the wilder side of gastronomy. His book Gastronaut, published the following year, won the Gormand World Cookbook Award for best Food Literature Book, as well as being shortlisted for the Guild of Food Writers’ Award. Stefan has worked as a TV director, scriptwriter and comedy producer, but his strangest job was appearing naked on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy at the age of four. He is married to the top food photographer Georgia Glynn Smith, who shot the pictures for Gastronaut.
* * *
I am delighted that you’ve opened this humble little book and taken the first step on your entomophagic adventure, but I am also aware that you may be harbouring a violent subconscious revulsion to our six-legged friends. It will come as no surprise that a toddler in northern Thailand squeals with delight when presented with a bowl of freshly cooked crickets while most of us grow up thinking that insects are dirty, otherworldly creepy crawlies put on this earth largely to scare the bejesus out of us. It would be obtuse of me to dismiss these feelings, not least because even I must confess to a vestigial distaste very occasionally rising to the surface when faced with a gruesome new invertebrate staring back at me.
As with so many life-affirming adventures, however, the path to wisdom may be challenging, but the rewards commensurately uplifting. So consider your hand held firmly within my grasp and let us skip together towards gastronomic enlightenment with joy in our hearts and a Colombian fat-arsed ant in our teeth!
When I first caught the entomophagy bug, the one thing I lacked was a simple, clear field guide that would bring together all the fragments of information (of wildly varying quality) that are currently available. There are a handful of excellent publications around, especially from the admirably forward-thinking UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, but the subject is underrepresented in current literature, probably because of Western distaste. I hope that the book you hold in your hands will close this gap and lead to your own adventure.
MY TOP 10 EDIBLE INSECT DISHES
Although insect-eating is still in its early stages in Europe, a plethora of insect-based dishes can be found around the globe. Check off the ones you’ve tried here (and add ones you find as you explore):
• 1. Red ant salad.
• 2. Chappulines.
• 3. Colombian fat-arsed ants.
• 4. Crickets with smoked herbs and stock.
• 5. Palm weevils.
• 6. Bamboo grubs.
• 7. Freshly fried Cambodian grasshoppers.
• 8. Thai primary school lunch: crickets fried with pandan leaves.
• 9. Earthworm stir-fry.
• 10. London woodlouse salad.
LET’S START OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT: WHAT IS AN INSECT?
The word ‘insect’ comes from the Latin for ‘cut into sections’. There are over 1 million described species of insect (with estimates of the actual total ranging from 2.6-10 million), and they have specific defining features. They are invertebrates (i.e. lacking a backbone) made up of three main body sections: head, thorax and abdomen. They have a chitinous exoskeleton (chitinous material is made of a long-chain polymer derivative of glucose, and an exoskeleton is an exterior casing that holds the insect together). Other common elements are three pairs of jointed legs, two antennae and compound eyes. They have one of two life cycles: complete metamorphosis where the egg hatches into a larvae then pupates into its adult form, or incomplete metamorphosis where the nymph shows little difference from adults. Some will produce wings in the final moult (also known as the final instar) if adults are winged, and there are estimated to be 10 quintillion of them on earth (that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000).
The thing is, we need to eat more insects. Lots more. And to ease their passage through your alimentary canal, perhaps we should begin by basking in the glow of some heartwarming facts:
• Insects taste delicious. I will prove it. (see here)
• Two billion people across the world eat insects on a regular basis. (see here)
• You’re already eating insects, even if you don’t know it. (see here)
• Culinary adventure is both invigorating and necessary. We shall take the potato as a case in point. (see here)
• Entomophagy could help save the planet. (see here)
• Insects are highly nutritious. (see here)
• They really do taste delicious.
The most common misconception about entomophagy (promulgated by certain popular jungle challenge TV shows) is that insects are a gruesome food, eaten raw, live and wriggly. The reality is very different. Very few insects are eaten raw because cooks across the world are clever and they care about both hygiene and flavour. Cooking them kills most bacteria that they may carry, and it also tends to destroy the efficacy of any toxins that they might contain.
But it gets more exciting when we look at their flavour profile: insects have a fascinating anatomy that lends itself to complex flavour chemistry for two reasons: firstly they are very high in protein (13-77% dry matter depending on insect order and life-stage, which makes mealworms and other caterpillars largely comparable to beef), with an excellent amino acid profile. Secondly they have a high surface area-to-volume ratio. These two elements allow splendorous Maillard reactions to take place on a huge scale. These are chemical reactions (specifically a cascading series of non-enzymatic browning reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars that thrive between 140-165C) that every cook craves because it leads to the classic fulsomeness of well-browned foods: the beefiness of seared steaks, the drool-inducing, umami-drenched triumph of a rotisserie-roasted chicken and the sheer toastiness of toast – all of these flavour profiles are the result of Maillard reactions. And the same goes for insects, so a handful of deep-fried grasshoppers will often smell and taste surprisingly beefy, but with a uniquely crunchy texture.
I’ve given tasting notes for the insects in this book at my peril because flavour profiles are variable and inconsistent. Much as a beautifully barbecued chicken wing will taste wildly different to a tarragon-poached chicken supreme (God forbid), I’ve eaten freshly fried waterbugs that smacked of pistachio, but others that were musty, like rising damp.
Like any food, insects can taste fantastic or bloody awful depending on a number of factors, mainly to do with chemistry, freshness, culinary skill and the quality of the ingredients they are cooked with. And a little local knowledge goes a long way, too. My first mouthful of mopane worms was the very quintessence of dust (no one had told me that mopane worms are supposed to be rehydrated before eating) and if you are inquisitive enough to buy a pack of freeze-dried European-produced insects, do bear in mind that they will, much like a dried lentil, taste infinitely better when soaked in a little fragrant stock before use. Imagine freeze-drying a piece of beef fillet and then trying to enjoy it. Nobody’s a winner there. The freeze-drying process is very useful as it ensures that no pathogens will be carried by the food, and they will receive the gift of a long shelf-life. But rehydrate that baby and add some good fat, and it’ll repay you in spades.
By-and-large, the majority of pre-cooked insects bought at markets and roadside stalls are deep-fried. Nutritionally this isn’t great, I grant you, but for simplicity, hygiene and flavour it’s wonderful. There are a few insects that are eaten raw, of course: witchetty grubs are sometimes eaten fresh and wriggly, and, one of my favourites, red ants, are eaten raw but not alive, but these are rare exceptions.
TWO BILLION PEOPLE ACROSS THE WORLD EAT INSECTS
So you’re in great company.
It’s rare to find a culture where insects are the absolute main protein source, but the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that around two billion people regularly supplement their diet with entomophagy, sometimes as a snack and sometimes as an important nutritional top-up, but never (in my experience) as an unwelcome necessity inflicted by poverty. On the contrary, insects are most likely to be bought at a premium, are more expensive than most other meats, and are consumed either as a treat or offered to guests as a great honour.
Over 1,900 insect species have been recorded as used for food across the world, with beetles, caterpillars and Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) leading the charge. This book covers just over 70, mainly because in culinary terms there are many overlapping species, so it made sense to concentrate on those you are most likely to stumble across. I should also confess to the handful of entries that aren’t (to entomologists’ annoyance, I suspect) actually insects at all, such as spiders (arachnids, not insects), worms (phylum Annelida, not insects) and woodlice (isopod crustaceans). These have been included regardless, as they fall under the umbrella of creatures most people think of as ‘creepy-crawlies’ (and they’re damn tasty).
YOU’RE ALREADY EATING INSECTS, EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW IT.
The next time you eat supermarket-bought sausages, pink gummy sweets, pink sherbets, marshmallows or, frankly, any pink food whatsoever, take a good look at the label. If it says ‘cochineal’, ‘E120’ or ‘carmines’, you are eating powdered and processed cochineal bugs. They make a beautifully rich dye and the food manufacturer can use the phrase ‘No Artificial Colours’ on the label. Campari’s rich red colour was derived from cochineal at least until 2006 and the dye is currently widely used for its depth of colour and excellent stability. Basically, if you’re living in the West it’s impossible to avoid eating cochineal once in a while.
If you’re eating crushed scale insects already, why not multiple-regurgitated insect vomit? Or as it’s more politely known: honey. Now we’re on a roll. Then there’s the sheer volume of insects and insect fragments that inevitably find their way into any food grown outside; not just salads, vegetables, tea and herbs but also cereals and the vast range of foods made from cereals: pasta, bread, cakes, pastries (see here).
CULINARY ADVENTURE: PRETENTIOUS NEOPHILIA?
Excellent question. Let us consider the potato.
The potato first arrived in Europe some years after Colombus discovered the Americas (which was some years after the Vikings had discovered them, and some more years again after the inhabitants had presumably discovered them themselves but let’s not get bogged down in a post-colonial slanging match). It was introduced to the Old World by the Spanish in the late 16th century, and was initially thought of as a rather creepy novelty food (much as insects are now) alongside other important foods such as chillies, corn and tomatoes. Many of these imported foods were grown by the aristocracy both as botanical curios and as displays of wealth, especially during the Restoration period and later. On one level it was sheer aristocratic one-upmanship but it also launched staple crops that sustained millions and, in the case of the potato, became a key driver of nutrition and population growth despite farmers’ initial reluctance.
Now listen, I’ll admit that novelty is, on its own, pointless, but its impact can be globally life-enhancing. The post-script to the potato story arrived in 1845 when culinary neophilia had faded and, comfortable in the arms of the staple potato variety, much of Europe was planted with the same variety which was vulnerable to Phytophthora infestans (potato blight). In western Ireland the devastation it wreaked (worsened in many ways by the British) became known as the Irish Potato Famine, wiping out 1 million and forcing 1 million more to emigrate. We need to continue evolving and adapting our food and our diets to sustain the planet’s population in a way that doesn’t create an untenable burden on existing resources, and exploring new food sources is integral to that.
Entomophagy may well be one of the big answers to the world’s food problems and while it is still in its infancy (at least in the west), it does offer huge prospects both in nutritional terms and for its low ecological impact. Unless we explore the potential of these foods, we will never know.
THE SCIENCE OF ENTOMOLOGY
I have a lovely tame entomologist called Sally-Ann Spence (she’s not very tame at all, truth be told) who helped enormously with this book and she has asked me to explain to you what she does. Entomology is the scientific study of insects, and an entomologist is a person who studies them. It’s essentially a branch of zoology and can relate to various aspects such as their social behavior, interaction with humans and their environments. It’s a fascinating science, and you get to play with beautiful creatures. Sally-Ann showed me some of Charles Darwin’s very own insects held in the glorious Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Entomologists are often to be found not on the end of the phone when you need them, but away in absurdly glamorous tropical locations dragging some poor Coleoptera out of a tree for a chat. The other thing you need to know about entomologists is that although they are invariably bright and funny people, they are often a little grumpy about the amount of attention and resources lavished upon other branches of zoology whose combined biomass weight is a fraction of that of insects. Specifically ‘bloody pandas and polar bears’. And don’t try to reason with them about relative levels of cuteness – entomologists simply have a different brain for this kind of thing. Also entomologists can nip out into the back garden to get a fix of their favourite subject, unlike polar bear researchers, who need to wrap up warm and head north. Entomologists have a very dry sense of humour, and Sally-Ann takes great pride in the fact that her research project is the Dung Beetle UK Mapping Project, otherwise known as DUMP.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: MY JOURNEY INTO ENTOMOPHAGY
I have been drawn to culinary adventure since my university days, but insects weren’t on my radar until 16 years ago when I discovered Why Not Eat Insects? It’s a small book – almost a pamphlet – written in 1885 by the nutty Victorian entomophagist Vincent Holt. Sadly Vince wasn’t much cop as a chef and his recipe for slug soup is a particularly low point in the culinary canon. But his enthusiasm is infectious and the book lit a fire of culinary inquisitiveness that led me to cook my first London woodlouse cocktail and write Gastronaut, a wildly unpublishable book about strange and wonderful food adventures.
Soon after that book was, for various strange and wonderful reasons, published, I found myself travelling the world making TV programmes about culinary adventures of a more dangerous bent, specifically Cooking in the Danger Zone, which found me investigating conflict and extreme poverty seen through the prism of food. It led me to rebel-held Burma where we survived on cat, rotten fish and, finally, my first plate of bamboo grubs. Strange though they looked, the taste was phenomenal – an inulin-like sweetness (comparable to Jerusalem artichokes), combined with a deep umami richness from their high protein content. These weren’t poverty foods by any stretch – they were a huge treat, served with grace and gravity by my host, and from that moment on I was a committed entomophagist.
Obviously, if your first experience of insect-eating is positive, things are looking up: this is food that challenges your fundamental sense of what’s decent to eat, what’s edible and what’s not, food that makes you think about every mouthful, that combines elemental fear and heartwarming flavour. Food that makes you feel truly alive in a way that a chicken nugget never could.
I was on a roll: ugly-delicious palm weevils in Cameroon followed, as did bizarre, huge Colombian fat-arsed ants, and I delighted in the fact that they were both challenging and delicious. There’s something strangely uplifting about overcoming latent disgust in order to eat your lunch, perhaps in the same way that heading out for a freezing cold winter run begins as torture and ends in ecstasy. Or is that just me? The point is that when I push myself into any culinary adventure my sensory perception is supercharged, and mere mouthfuls of food become memorable and fascinating.
My fascination with entomophagy melded inexorably into my writing and TV work as I featured them in documentaries and coaxed kids to eat them in children’s shows with remarkable (and unexpected) success. Incidentally, kids are often much more open-minded about eating bugs than adults, but there’s a technique: make sure that the first kid you offer the cricket to is the alpha child of the pack and (preferably) that they want to impress you with their bravery. When tackling a scary or unusual situation kids are trenchantly tribal and will follow their peer pack from the top down. Tell the first kid how brave they are to even pick the food up then taste it alongside them to celebrate their awesome awesomeness. Their peers will invariably follow. As it happens, both Daisy Gates (14) and Poppy Gates (12) have a clear preference for Mexican fly eggs. Not for the taste – they just like the texture.
Then, in 2010, insect eating seemed to come alive. Firstly, I convinced Richard Klein, the wonderful head of the quirky, erudite BBC4 TV channel, to commission a documentary called Can Eating Insects Save the World? Oh happy day. Together with my lovely producer Kari and cameraman Nik we headed to South-East Asia and tried delicious deep-fried grasshoppers, practically inedible giant water bugs, crickets, worms, tarantulas, and vicious biting red ants straight from the tree. At the same time, insect foods began to hit the market, and the press featured endless shock-horror stories about new products. It didn’t quite feel that we had opened the entomophagy flood gates – but it certainly seemed that we had loosened the jar-lid.
So what next? I’d be kidding myself if I said that people are now embracing entomophagy with open arms. There is still a fair amount of gimmickry and novelty, but at least the subject now has broad awareness and a place in the media. The next stage is going to be much harder: transforming gimmicks into mouthfuls on a significant scale. On the whole my fellow Westerner most certainly does not share the fizz and tingle I get from culinary adventure. On the contrary they resort to type, they are neophobic, viewing culinary adventure as both pretentious and unnecessary, and are happy in the misconception that ‘traditional is always best’. My work is ongoing, and so I must put faith in mankind’s enlightened self-interest and its need to feed itself more efficiently – and cross my fingers that the potato paradigm is still relevant 500 years later!
DANGERS OF ENTOMOPHAGY
1. Don’t eat any arthropods including insects, spiders and woodlice if you are allergic to shellfish, chocolate or house dust. In common with many protein-rich foods some arthropods are thought to trigger allergic reactions, and it’s probably best for allergen sufferers to stay safe, pack this adventure away and climb a mountain instead. It’s not clear what the triggers are but fingers point at the polysaccharide concentration in insects’ chitinous exoskeletons, which can be similar to that in crabs, prawns and lobsters (it’s complicated as chitin can actually help the immune system at certain levels). It may also block uptake of calcium. Similarly, if you have an allergic reaction to bee or wasp stings, it wouldn’t be wise to eat their larvae or pupae. They can also contain pollen, so anyone suffering from bad hay fever might want to steer clear.
2. Don’t be reckless. I will admit to having unthinkingly eaten some ridiculously dangerous animals in the past, partly because I’m a feckless greedy neophile and partly because people dared me to. These people fall into two camps: 1. People who are pointing a TV camera at me. 2. My daughters, Daisy and Poppy, who invariably dare me to eat whichever spider or fly may be passing. It’s pathetic really: I’ve always found it impossible to dodge a dare. I have been lucky thus far and my metabolism may have been strengthened by tackling some of the filthiest, weirdest food on earth, but you don’t need to demean yourself similarly. If it looks angry, spiky, ill or clearly designed by Beelzebub himself, don’t eat it without consulting this book and asking a local who’s eaten it before.
Here are a few specific dangers:
• Insects with aposematic colouration (loosely defined as ‘looking scary to broadcast their unpalatability’) may well contain bitter-tasting chemicals and should be avoided. These include ladybirds, tiger moth and cinnabar caterpillars (toxic due to chemicals gained from ragwort, its food plant).
• Mimicry, where one harmless insect mimics one that is not. Many species of hoverflies mimic wasps, for example. If you are unsure always avoid.
• False widow spiders have been known to give a painful bite. Wasps, bees, hornets and ants are capable of giving a painful sting. They may not be fatal stings in themselves, but you may get an allergic reaction to the venom that results in anaphylactic shock – and this can be fatal.
• Ticks can carry Lyme disease and hairy caterpillars should generally be avoided – especially the Oak processionary moth caterpillar that can cause serious skin rashes.
• Invertebrates that are listed as ‘biters’ include bed bugs, horseflies, midges, gnats, fleas, head and pubic lice, and mosquitoes. Be careful with them. Especially the pubic lice.
3. Always seek local advice. Species differ from region to region, with some safe to eat and others possibly toxic. You must ask for advice. Locals should know if pesticides and herbicides have been used in the area, potentially making your lunch toxic, too.
4. Tackle germs. Insects, like all foods, can harbour micro-organisms, from bacteria to tiny fungi. Correct handling and cooking is essential to get rid of potential pathogens. Some insects can be eaten whole but others, like the mopane worm eaten across Africa, need to be gutted: just give to them a really good squeeze so that their guts squirt out. Seems to do the trick nicely. And it goes without saying that your insects they should be cooked as thoroughly as any other meat product to ensure they are rid of any pathogens. Contamination from micro-organisms in properly dried insects shouldn’t be a problem for consumers. The insects available commercially in the UK are mostly freeze-dried after being denied food for a day, which makes them safe if stored in cool, dry conditions. Alternatively, acidifying insects seems to work well as a preservative (in much the same way as sliced apple is tossed in citric acid to stop it going brown).
5. Beware of toxins. Some species of insect are, of course, dangerous to humans when alive, as are other arthropods such as tarantulas and scorpions. Most toxins are neutralised by cooking, but you must take local advice. Some caterpillars have poisonous spines on them that need to be burnt off before they are safe to eat, and the bogong moth of Australia isn’t actually poisonous, but tests on the waste that vast groups leave on cave floors have shown large quantities of arsenic, potentially from pesticides. So consume in moderation. Studies have shown that insects caught in fields are far more likely to contain pesticides or heavy metals than those caught in dense forests.
6. Choking and other hazards. When you buy cooked Mexican chappulines or Thai grasshoppers, you may ask yourself ‘where are their big grasshopper legs, for crying out loud?’ Good question. They’ve been removed for your safety. Many species of grasshopper have legs with little backwards-facing barbs (much like an arrow) covered in spikes that can catch in your throat, causing a genuine choking hazard. It’s even possible that they get stuck in your gut, possibly causing constipation, and have to be removed through surgery. Snap them off before eating.
7. Be kind to the environment and yourself. Collecting insects is great fun, but do be careful out there amidst all that wildlife because wandering through tarantula-infested fields, wasp-drenched forests and snake-soaked badlands is not for the faint-hearted. Be aware of the environmental dangers wherever you are, wear ankle-high boots, appropriate clothing, take a knowledgeable guide with you and listen to them. And be kind to the other inhabitants of your hunting grounds: birds, mammals and vegetation. Don’t cut trees down to access a nest and check that your quarry isn’t on the CITES list or endangered locally. There are also occasional instances of overharvesting – especially in areas where insect collecting provides big profits, as with mopane worms and some tarantulas. The point about entomophagy is to spread the ecological load attached to fulfilling our nutritional needs rather than cause new pressures.
When foraging, please be careful where you wander: avoid areas where pesticides have been applied and avoid nature reserves and SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) etc. You may need to obtain a collecting licence in certain areas and unless the land on which you forage is clearly open to the public you should always seek the landowner’s permission.
BENEFITS OF INSECT EATING
The ecological ramifications of entomophagy are hugely exciting. If we sourced at least some of our protein consumption from insects, we could alleviate a lot of pressure on the environment, for several reasons. Statistics in this area are a little patchy and hard to compare, but there’s a clear pattern:
1. Feed. Insects are very efficient at using the planet’s resources. Global livestock farming removes a vast proportion of the world’s grain supply from the market to use as feed, and the most popular meats are relatively wasteful in comparison to insects. Crickets, on the other hand, convert food to protein very efficiently: it takes as little as 1.7kg of feed to produce 1kg of live crickets (of which the whole cricket is edible), and that feed is often waste matter. In order to produce protein insects use half as much feed as chickens and pigs, four times less than sheep and a whopping 12 times less than cattle.
2. Greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. Insects are relatively kind to the environment. The livestock industry produces 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions every year – that’s 14% of all anthropogenic emissions – but it also produces 44% of all anthropogenic methane emissions (and methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas). That’s partly because cows are ruminants, each producing around 600 litres of gas every day as they ferment food using bacteria from their rumen, and around 30 litres of that is methane. Multiply that by the lifespan of the average beef cow and you get 16,500-21,000 litres of methane per cow. That’s a lot of methane. Greenhouse gas emissions of mealworms, crickets and locusts are lower by a factor of 100 when compared to beef and pork production, and very few insects produce any methane at all (with the exception of cockroaches and termites). Ammonia production is also much lower in insects, with pigs producing around 10 times as much per kilo of weight gain.
3. Water (and land). Water usage is becoming a crucial issue as climate change disrupts farming. Water-stress is already causing conflict in many areas, as is the availability of arable land when livestock production takes up 70% of all agricultural land use. This creates huge human and environmental pressures as land use and the water extracted (for growing the grain that is then fed to livestock) causes a concentration of embedded (or ‘virtual’) water use so great that it takes 22,000 litres of water to create 1kg beef. Statistics on water and land usage by insect farming are few and far between, but there seems little doubt that the lower feed:protein ratio leaves insects a vastly more efficient protein source, and the attendant land usage so much lower.
Bugs have been on the menu for many years contributing happily to a balanced diet but nutritional information is only just beginning to emerge. This is a new area of nutritional research so data is still thin on the ground, but this much we know:
• Generally insects are very high in protein and many insect-protein products are beginning to appear on the shelves, including energy bars and products marketed to the weight-lifting community.
• Insects are also an excellent source of fat, including essential fatty acids such as the omega range (more commonly found in certain types of fish) and are important for a huge variety of organs from brains to bones.
• Insects are also packed with micronutrients (minerals, vitamins and their ilk) and invariably offer a rich source of iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium and sodium which are essential to a healthy diet.
BENEFITS FOR FARMERS AND FORAGERS
There is a clear interdependency between the insect forager and the field-owning farmer. When a team of grasshopper-hunters clears your fields of the hungry little fellas, there will be a short-term dip in the amount of your crop that disappears and that can only be a good thing for your rice harvest. The effect on the overall biomass will be insignificant due to the sheer number of the little beasts, and hunters will invariably leave the vast majority of insects behind hidden under the foliage, but it’s better than nothing.
Insect farming, on the other hand, is a burgeoning new business and offers opportunities for those without an acre of land on which to graze a lovely big cow. There are around 20,000 cricket farms in Thailand, and in North America and Europe small-scale insect farms are beginning to crop up. Insect farms have long met the demand for pet reptile and bird food, and it’s a short-ish leap to convert these to human food production. One of the many advantages of insects is they are very small and pretty easy to manage, enjoying close proximity. They don’t ask for much to eat compared to larger mammals as they tend to metabolise food very efficiently (warm-blooded mammals waste a fair amount on heat generation). They are easily transportable, tend to breed like the clappers, and what they do eat is often waste matter such as wheat chaff. One problem with large-scale insect farming is the risk of catastrophic population collapse, often for no immediately apparent reason, so there is much work to be done to support the industry.
Foraging is often an important source of income for those living in poor rural areas. Women and children traditionally collect the mopane worm across Southern Africa, and although most insects are collected for personal consumption extras are often sold by women at local markets for a good price. In the West, edible insects are still sold largely as a novelty – chocolate-covered locusts, scorpions in lollipops and their ilk. As such, prices remain high and will continue to do so until demand increases.
So, do I think that people will all race to chow down on mealworm bolognaise and cricket pasta? Will Granny be scoffing grasshopper pie next Christmas?
Futuregazing is a fool’s game but it’s a game that this particular fool is willing to play, so here goes: I believe that entomophagy will form several strands. Over the coming years foraging for insects in North America and Europe will grow in popularity in much the same way that we are reawakening to the joys of mushrooming and hedgerow cooking. It will be small-scale yet fundamentally important, as it will serve to fuel the discussion.
A small but noisy industry has developed over the last few years producing everything from fun Hallowe’en party food to insect protein bars and cricket-flour-fortified pasta. Restaurateurs and food developers are experimenting with insects, making snacks and tasters, incorporating them into fantastic dishes and enjoying a pleasing return of column inches for their effort. It has been a wave of fascination that many committed and talented people are riding while hoping that this will transform into a real industry with scale and infrastructure before their cash runs out.
While I’m hopeful that the major change they crave will come soon, I’m expecting to wait 20 years for the really big shift when people start eating insects on a significant scale. This is likely to come when ecological pressures have made traditional proteins too expensive or when people finally realise that they must change the way they drain the planet’s resources or risk catastrophe. And that’s when large-scale cricket and mealworm farming (not foraging) could fill the gap, producing protein that will be turned into burgers, sausages and pasta sauces. But of course those burgers and sausages won’t be marketed with a photo of an insect on the packaging. In much the same way that Quorn packaging doesn’t mention that it’s made from fungus, mealworm burgers will accentuate the positive aspects and carry names like EarthBurger, EcoBurger, PlanetBurger or ForestBurger. They will carry pictures of happy polar bears (just to annoy the entomologists). The key factor is that they will be cheap. Sometimes we are driven by our wallets rather than our hearts and minds, so when the HappyPlanetBurger costs £1 compared to the beefburger’s £10, we may finally have the makings of an eco-dietary revolution.
In the meantime, it’s our duty to explore, and what a world there is to discover! My entomophagy escapades revealed to me a possible route from our ecologically and nutritionally disastrous monoculinary tendencies. But more importantly, they have led to extraordinary food adventures that have explained so much to me about the human condition and made my life worth living.
So hold on tight: let’s do this thing.
UK AND NORTHERN EUROPE
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You might think that the entomophagy-minded foodie would find slim pickings in northern Europe. After all, the region is colder than most, whereas insects thrive in warm climates. This can make insect-foraging a calorie-neutral or even calorie-negative endeavour, (whereby more energy is spent collecting your dinner than you gain from eating it). Much like munching on celery. And, yes, in terms of sheer number of species Europe ranks last in the league table of edible insects, with only 2% of the world’s commonly eaten species.
But there are two counter-arguments to offer sceptics.
1. Insects are tenacious little critters and are found everywhere, especially in summer, as long as you know where to look and what to look for (and you have this book to hand). It’s usually possible to walk into any garden that isn’t under a blanket of snow and find a mouthful of protein.
2. The future of the world. Europe has always been at the forefront of global culinary endeavour, largely due to the work of the Dutch, who have been extracting food from an unpromising patch of mud since at least the Reformation. And with some degree of inevitability, they have thrown their weight behind entomophagy as an important solution to the world’s food problems.
The Dutch are farming organic mealworms and crickets for human consumption, and the good folk at Wageningen University produce some brilliant entomophagy research. Big ideas that change global nutrition often sound a bit odd and distasteful at first. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change the world by changing what we eat.
THE MOST SURPRISING INSECT-BASED DISHES
Some of the most exciting developments in entomophagy have come from the most surprising places. Despite a climate that doesn’t naturally lend itself to cold-blooded animals, northern Europe has developed a pleasing proportion of the world’s oddest insect dishes. Check off the ones you’ve tried.
• 1. Bee mayonnaise, Denmark.
• 2. Cockchafer soup, France.
• 3. Fly burgers, Malawi/Tanzania.
• 4. Mealworm ice cream, San Francisco, USA.
• 5. Christmas minced flies, London, UK.
(Admittedly, that last entry was one of your author’s.)
The meadow grasshopper is known for its call; it attracts attention by rubbing its legs together and adding a scratchy noise to the general cacophony of a field on a summer’s evening. The grasshopper is particularly good at hopping because its strong back legs act as tiny catapults – it bends its legs at the knee so that a spring-like mechanism stores up energy, then, when the grasshopper is ready to jump, it relaxes the leg muscles, allowing the spring to release and flinging it stylishly into the air. Despite this, they are very easy to catch when out in the open or on short grass, but in the middle of fields they invariably disappear into the vegetation, never to be seen again.
Taste: When freshly cooked they are crunchy and nutty with a strong umami hit.
Country: Found throughout the UK and much of Europe.
Habitat: In the wild the meadow grasshopper lives in damp pastures and meadows, spending its time merrily chirruping and feeding on leaves.
Dangers: They have no sting or venom and are no threat to humans.
How to cook/prep: Best roasted or deep-fried.
The water boatman spends its days leisurely rowing across ponds with its oar-like legs, eating algae and bits of vegetable detritus (which makes it unusual among its mostly carnivorous pond peers). But its most impressive skill is the ability to sing with its penis. Yes, you read that right: it’s a penis-singer. It achieves this by rubbing the penis against its abdomen. The volume is spectacularly high, ranking as the loudest creature relative to its size. It has no teeth and instead dissolves its chosen morsel with its saliva before sucking up the resulting mush using its straw-like mouth. To survive underwater it has developed the ingenious technique of bringing a tiny air bubble under with it, tucked under its wing cases like a primitive scuba diver. Backswimmers (a similar species) are popular in Thailand and are eaten in soups or salted to make a dish known as jom. Water boatmen are also eaten in Mexico, both the adults and their eggs.
Taste: The eggs are quite the delicacy in Mexico, where they are known as ‘Mexican caviar’. The adults on the other hand are slightly crablike.
Country: Widely spread throughout the UK.
Habitat: Happiest living their vegetarian existence in weedy ponds and rivers.
Dangers: Some species of backswimmer can bite, so do be careful.
How to cook/prep: Can be roasted, fried or boiled.
Although they have a tiny wingspan of 1mm, these are the most bloodthirsty of Scotland’s 40 species of midge; the highland midge has a fearsome reputation as one of the UK’s most annoying insects, scourge of camping trips and harbinger of itchy misery. The female of the species tends to be the one that goes for us and extracts her dinner by making minute cuts on our skin and then happily lapping away at the pool of blood. They release a chemical that stops the blood from clotting, meaning they can merrily gorge themselves before flying off and leaving us itchy and cross. Nobody is spared, even those of royal blood – Queen Victoria grumbled in her 1872 diary that she was ‘half devoured’ by the pests. In Africa midges are harvested and pressed into solid blocks called a kunga cake. It’s time to turn the tables on our Scottish insects and do the same.
Taste: Slightly nutty and a little musty. Once mushed into a cake and then crumbled into food they add an umami richness (like Parmesan cheese taste without the cheesiness) to stews and soups.
Country: Widespread in north Wales and Scotland.
Habitat: Rarely if ever farmed – people generally try to avoid them. Your best chance of gathering a midge harvest would be going out at dusk or dawn with a very fine net and possibly a torch and using yourself as bait. Or copy the east African method of wetting a frying pan with oil so that the midges stick to it when waved through a swarm. This works remarkably well.
Dangers: None known.
How to cook/prep: Gather as many as you can and press them into a cake. Make burgers with it, or dry it out and grate parts of it off into stews.
GIANT HOUSE SPIDER
The giant house spider isn’t an insect, and it’s not even that giant in the ranking of massive arachnids, generally reaching 18mm in body length (but with proportionally long legs – up to 75mm, in males). Despite having shared homes with humanity for millennia they are relatively shy, preferring to make their funnel-shaped webs in dark undisturbed places and then sit and wait for prey. Cushy job? Not really. From July to October the males can be seen prowling the house looking for a mate, but after spending a few delicious weeks with their main squeeze she usually eats him. The babies are called spiderlings, which makes them sound quite sweet – until you see around 60 emerging from each egg sac. They are one of the world’s speediest spiders, managing to scuttle at speeds of up to 1.18 mph.
Taste: Let’s be honest here: the eating experience is mainly crunch and funky-tasting juice, but there’s a savoury protein punch from a plate of them, and when scattered with salt they make a wonderful snack.
Country: Very widely spread all across the UK.
Habitat: Happiest inside the home in quiet crannies where they have both access to lots of prey and isolation from meddlesome humans and their stinky pets.
Dangers: Like all spiders, they do produce venom to stun their prey but are unlikely to bite humans, much preferring to run away. The venom is invariably neutralised by cooking.
How to cook/prep: Wash, dry and deep-fry. Drain on paper, toss in salt and paprika and serve.
GREATER WAX MOTH LARVAE
The greater wax moth’s larvae, or waxworms, are a beekeeper’s worst nightmare, gobbling away at impurities in the wax in honeybee hives and causing a huge amount of damage to the eventual honey yield. They can even eat the heads of bee pupae. But let’s not damn them too early – the larvae are incredibly useful as pet feed and are also used in scientific experiments, not to mention being rather scrummy to humans. In their book Entertaining With Insects, or: The Original Guide to Insect Cookery, Ronald L. Taylor and Barbara J. Carter describe the larvae as ‘thin-skinned, tender, and succulent. They would appear to lend themselves to commercial exploitation as snack items. When dropped into hot vegetable oil, the larvae immediately swell, elongate and then burst. The resulting product looks nothing like an insect, but rather like popcorn’. Just beware of chip-pan fires.
Taste: Often reared on a diet of bran and honey, when roasted or sautéed they taste like a cross between pine nuts and enoki mushrooms, but also very fatty.
Country: Found all over Europe.
Habitat: They are happy anywhere with an adequate supply of food, but the larvae really do love bees’ nests. They are widely available commercially as food for geckos and other reptiles.
Dangers: Harmless if properly cooked.
How to cook/prep: Sautéed or roasted (after popping in the freezer for half an hour to send them to sleep).
BLACK SOLDIER FLY
The black soldier fly tries to make itself look fearsome by pretending to be a wasp; it has opaque patches on its middle to give the appearance of the pinched waist of its distant stinging cousin. These flies make excellent eating as larvae (though you can eat the adults too). The larvae are a protein-rich (42% protein) dinner for all sorts of animals and are farmed for animal feed as they are highly efficient at converting vegetation to protein. And for humans? Well, a prototype tabletop domestic farm contraption created by an Austrian designer managed to breed 500g of larvae for human consumption in two weeks. They are industrious little things, adept at breaking down waste into compost and highly efficient at reproducing from a small amount of food. They can even thrive on human faeces (which doesn’t sound particularly appealing). You can often spot them lurking around cowpats, but in fact the adults have no functioning mouth – they spend their time searching for mates, not eating.
Taste: When cooked the larvae smell like potatoes and the taste is nutty and meaty.
Country: Found throughout the UK.
Habitat: Nooks and crannies around decomposing waste and manure. They are hard to forage on any sort of scale – you really need to catch a few adults to start a domestic larvae farm colony. There is a commercial market for these flies (for fish and pet food and animal feed), for which they are grown in huge tanks called worm bins.
Dangers: They have no sting or venom and are no threat to humans.
How to cook/prep: Roast or stir-fry.
BLACK GARDEN ANT
The most common variety of ant found in the UK, these are ingenious insects with a complex hierarchy and interesting behaviour. They usually farm certain species of aphid, offering them protection in exchange for a sugary secretion the aphids give off called honeydew, which the ants find utterly delicious. The worker ants are often found swarming around soft fruits and other sweet things and are all female, numbering around 5,000 per colony. The lazy males don’t work and are only produced for the flying season when they and the young virgin queens of the species take their magnificent nuptial flight to form new colonies, where the queens can live for a whopping 15 years. The males are less lucky, dropping dead a few days after landing.
Taste: The adults taste pleasantly zesty as they, like many ants, contain formic acid (from the Latin word for ant, ‘formica’) for use as a defence mechanism when threatened. Their light crunchy texture is satisfyingly toothsome.
Country: Widespread across the UK, northern Europe and parts of north America and Asia.
Habitat: A queen can make a new nest anywhere, from ordinary soil to cracks in pavements. The worker ants can be found far and wide as they explore extensively during the summer months to look for new food supplies. It’s easy to catch them by offering something sweet such as a piece of fruit, and shaking them off it into a container.
Dangers: Lasius niger are harmless and will be safe to eat after roasting.
How to cook/prep: Best eaten simply roasted with salt.
SPECKLED BUSH CRICKET
Crickets are an immensely popular snack across the world as they are easy to catch (most of them don’t jump particularly well) and enormously nutritious.
These ones are easily found in the British countryside. The females have a special tube for depositing eggs called an ovipositor, which looks a little like a scimitar, while both sexes are covered in the very dashing little black spots that give them their name. Both are flightless but extremely agile, bouncing around using their long slender back legs. Many species are also very easy to farm, which is why there are around 20,000 cricket farms in Thailand. If you need to cure yourself of entomophobia, I recommend putting your arms into a cricket farm box (about the size of a kitchen table) and letting them run all over you. Bracing stuff.
Taste: When eaten freshly fried, they are crispy and meaty (due to their high protein content), like a cross between ready salted crisps and roast chicken. Dried, they have a nutty taste, and can be rehydrated in soy sauce and stock for extra depth.
Country: Most commonly found in south and central England and the Welsh coast.
Habitat: They are mostly nocturnal and are found in many different habitats. In the UK, they are easy to find in fields, grassland and meadows. Use a head-torch at night-time or hang up a white sheet in the garden and point a bright light as it. You should find them quite easily.
Dangers: None known.
How to cook/prep: Dispatch them by dropping them into water, and then shake dry before deep-frying them in hot sunflower oil for 3–7 minutes, depending on size, and testing them after three minutes. Toss them in salt and eat them as a snack.