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Eating Insects: Tickle your taste buds

When photographer Peter Menzel ate his first live stink bug he was disgusted by the way it exploded in his mouth. But that was before tarantulas became his favourite food. By Jonathan Dyson
First, take 30 to 40 live scorpions. Stir-fry in hot oil for 20 seconds. Add pork, garlic, ginger, salt and pepper. Simmer for 40 minutes ... Not quite Delia, but everyday fare in parts of China, and one of the culinary curiosities collected by photographer Peter Menzel and his partner, writer and documentary film-maker, Faith D'Aluisio, during a nine-year global study of entomophagy, the eating of insects.

"This is something that as a kid I was really freaked out about," says Peter, talking from their home in Napa Valley, California. "I remember reading about Hell's Angels eating live grasshoppers at a motorcycle rally and thinking it was just inconceivable that people could eat something so lowly and disgusting. But then I came across this piece in the Wall Street Journal about the Food Insect Newsletter, and it had some recipes and talked about the strange people who subscribed to the newsletter, and I just became fascinated with it. I made a point of looking for insect-eating whenever I went abroad on assignment."

His first, and most traumatic, encounter with entomophagy was at a festival in celebration of the jumil, or stink bug, in a village south-west of Mexico City. "There were all these people on top of this mountain hunting jumiles. I walked up to this group of women who were mashing them up and putting them on tostadas - but some of the women were eating them live, and I knew I couldn't refuse one if I was going to be `photographically accepted' here. It was disgusting. First it tried to crawl out of my mouth and claw across my tongue and escape, so I had to crunch down on it to stop it and it exploded. It had this nauseous taste of iodine and I had these bug guts in my mouth, but there were all these people watching so I had to grin and bear it."

After that it got easier, and he gradually became a connoisseur. His favourite dish was roast Theraphosa leblondi tarantula, prepared by Yanomami Indians near the Orinoco river in Venezuela: "It's the world's largest spider, it's bigger than your outstretched hand, but it's like a crab to eat. You roast it, and it has this white meat inside. And there's actually very little difference from a crab, they're both from the same family, except one of them made it out of the sea."

Faith is still far from sanguine about insect-eating. "He dragged me kicking and screaming into this one," she says. "I'm the reluctant bug- eater here. A carrot, you pull it out of the ground, it doesn't do anything, it lays there, it waits for you to pick it up, but a creepy-crawly ... "

She confesses her squeamishness probably reflects how detached we have become in the West from our food sources: "Here in the US we don't even know what our protein looks like other than that it's on a slab of Styrofoam in the grocer's freezer. We have developed our way out of knowing what we are eating and eating bugs is like one giant, atavistic, step backwards into our dark past."

There were some surprising insights into the differences between insect- eating peoples: "We were in Upper Venda on the north-eastern side of South Africa and eating termites for lunch with a group of women," comments Faith. "They heat them up with a little bit of oil and tomato, and serve it with mielie mielie - cornmeal - and the subject came up that we had just been in China eating scorpions, and the people we were with in Venda were so totally disgusted. It started crystallising for me that it's culturally defined, and different people simply have different tastes."

So what's on the menu for lunch today for Peter and Faith, in one of their brief stops back home with the kids - Josh, Jack, Adam and Evan - before they set off on their latest assignment. "Well, I've got a couple of kilos of dried mopane worms," says Peter. "We could reconstitute them and make a nice little casserole with curry and onions ... " "Oh no," says Faith, interrupting on the conference line, "I'll tell you exactly what we're having. We're going to have a very nice sun-dried-tomato ravioli with a white wine reduction and fresh spinach salad - and no bugs in it".

Man Eating Bugs: the art and science of eating insects by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, is published by Material World Books, price pounds 14.99