Locust is the new bacon: the cuisine that creeps and crawls

  • @mjpmccarthy

We don't know what we're missing by not eating insects, according to a new exhibition launched yesterday by the Natural History Museum.

We don't know what we're missing by not eating insects, according to a new exhibition launched yesterday by the Natural History Museum.

Bugs, bees, moths, ants, termites, weevils, grasshoppers, locusts and their grubs can all be delicious and are packed with nutritional value, the exhibition, Eating Creepy Crawlies, claims. Insects' close relatives, the spiders and scorpions, can be even more tasty, it suggests, with the scariest members of the group, tarantulas, having delicate white flesh on a par with chicken or even lobster, according to people who have tried them.

The exhibition, at the museum's outstation, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, displays a wide range of edible creepy things and is illustrated with stunning photographs of insects as haute cuisine around the world by the American photographer Peter Menzel, complete with tasting notes.

They range from witchetty grubs, the large larvae of cossid moths from Australia which Aborigines have eaten for thousands of years and are good barbecued ("creamy and delicate flesh tasting like nut-flavoured scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella wrapped in filo pastry") to stir-fried female giant red ants from Thailand ("a rich, sour, bacony flavour, rather pungent, needing a sweet and sour accompaniment") and sago grubs from Indonesia ("nice fatty bacon taste but with a very chewy skin").

"It's only in Western society that we don't accept the eating of insects," said Vicki Hope-Walker, the organiser of the exhibition. "But we're now getting more and more diverse in our taste, and if you look back at what we were eating 20 years ago and see how that's changed, I think we might well be eating insects 20 years from now."

Dick Vane-Wright, the Natural History Museum's Keeper of Entomology, and keen entomophage (insect eater) said the aim was "to raise people's awareness of the cultural diversity and the diversity of opportunities that nature offers us."

He said: "If you go round the average supermarket you realise we live off just a few dozen plants and animals. There's no reason why we shouldn't diversify and make our lives more interesting, and in the process develop a greater respect for the diversity of life, rather than regarding a lot of it as yukky or vaguely threatening."

The vast majority of the 1.5m known insect species were hugely beneficial to mankind, he said, but people in the West were affected by the fact that a few had a bad press.

Mr Vane-Wright, who has sampled many insect species, says his two favourites are mopane worms from southern Africa ("big and very meaty, taste like chorizo sausage, go brilliantly with Tabasco sauce") and wax moth larvae ("very sweet, absolutely delicious"). He offers two simple rules for prospective insect eaters: don't eat brightly or contrastingly coloured insects (they are likely to be poisonous) or hairy insects (they probably contain irritants) and always cook them.

The exhibition closes on 10 September with a demonstration of insect cookery by the Bird Cage restaurant in London, which has several insect dishes on the menu and supplied the nibbles for yesterday's launch - locusts with garlic, ginger and lemongrass.

Everyone at the launch who tried the insects enjoyed them - with the ironic exception of Harriet Green, a PhD student at the museum studying bark beetles, who couldn't bring herself to nibble. "I know it's absolutely irrational," she said with a grimace, "but I don't think I can."

Your correspondent can report that the locusts have a deep, woody taste, not unlike smoky bacon and quite pleasant. If you have any more doubts about entomophagy, remember there is biblical authority for it. "These ye may eat: the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind," - Leviticus, XI, 22.

Or if you're not convinced by that, take the word of the Mayor of Tring, Peter Coneron.

"They go very well with the red wine," he said at the reception yesterday, a glass in one hand and locust in the other. "Or with the white for that matter."