Shami Radia never imagined that one day he would be standing in the marketplace of a Cambodian village making Incy Wincy Spider movements with his hands.
But there he was two years ago on a trip to Asia, determined to try all the local delicacies - in spite of any language barriers that he encountered. “Finally they understood,” Radia says, “and I got given 50 burnt tarantulas on a plate – and I’m mildly arachnophobic. The head and the legs you snap off first. They taste a bit like the crispy bit of a chicken wing, but the abdomen is like a profiterole. It kind of just sags in your mouth and the creamy bit, it’s a little bitter.”
It might not be the best endorsement of insects as food, but, Radia insists, most insects that he tasted on his travels were “quite tasty”. The exoskeleton, he says, tends to be “earthy and nutty”.
Insects have been popping up intermittently (or should that be in-termite-ntly?) on menus in recent years. In August 2012, Noma chef René Redzepi brought live ants to his 10-day pop-up in Claridge’s. Six months later, Wahaca served grasshoppers at its Southbank Centre branch. Chefs at the Mexican restaurant made the Chapulines Fundido dish by blending shallots, garlic and chipotle chillies with the little critters and it was served with gooey melted cheese. And Rentokil celebrated its 85th anniversary a few months after that with worms dipped in chocolate for a PR stunt at a temporary venue near St Paul’s Cathedral. But edible insects in the West have remained a bit niche; only for adventurous gastronomes, until now.
The United Nations endorsed insects as a sustainable, nutritional food source in a paper released at the end of last year, and food companies looking to the future have taken note. One early company catching the worms is Grub, run by Radia. He first discovered insects as a food source when he was working with WaterAid in Malawi three years ago. It was rainy season and the children in the village were running around catching termites. “I thought it was a game at first, but after they catch them they lay them out and dry them, or they fry them really simply with a bit of chilli, and they taste a bit like peanuts.”
Grub is now the first company in the UK to supply fresh (they’re dried, not live) insects for individual consumers as well as catering businesses. The current selection includes mealworms (£4.95 for 50g), crickets (£9.89 for 50g) and grasshoppers (£10.65 for 30 to 35 whole ones) that cooks can prepare at home. Previously many of the insects used in pop-up restaurants were already deep-fried before being re-cooked by the chefs, but Radia insists that his insects are of a superior quality. Grub’s grubs etc are imported from Holland where they are farmed and raised for human consumption, but the next stage of the business plan is to produce them in the UK. The stage after that, says Radia, will involve a grow-your-own model. Consumers will be able to have their own “micro-farm” of creepy crawlies, kept in a terrarium on their window sills. “People will be harvesting them every now and then, and sprinkling them on a salad,” he says.
In the meantime, they can also visit the Grub pop-up restaurant, which is serving a Thai-style insect feast from tonight until Saturday at Monikers in Hoxton Square. The organisers claim that even the most sceptical will be converted by the traditional dishes with a twist, such as tempura grasshoppers and soy-roasted cricket miang wrapped in betel leaf.
Another company, called Ento - taking its name from “entomophagy” (eating insects as food) - is grinding up insects, mixing them with more conventional food and making them into cubes. The products are not yet available to the public because the food is still being tested to determine how best to make the sushi-style boxes of insects palatable to unadventurous taste buds.
There are also a number of new bug-based cookbooks due to be released this year, such as Edible by Daniella Martin, who blogs about crunchy creepy crawlies at Girl Meets Bug. In The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, Arnold van Huis, one of the book’s joint authors, is dead keen on insect consumption. As Professor of Tropical Entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Van Huis is one of the many people bugging us to eat six-legged creatures, saying they’re the answer to humankind’s food problems. “Insects have more iron and zinc than conventional meat, which is very important in developing countries where children have iron deficiencies,” he says. “The protein content is more or less similar to conventional meat but there is less fat content.”
And the flavour? “In a blind taste test, nine out of 10 people preferred mealworm burgers to real meat,” Van Huis says. “But it’s not the taste that’s a problem, it’s to do with people’s emotions and that they have to overcome.”
That might be tricky, says Dr Morgaine Gaye, a “food futurologist” and director of Bellwether Food Trends, because it requires a massive psychological shift. “It’s to do with getting a critical mass of people to try it,” she says. “In the 1950s, eating lobster was considered disgusting in the north eastern states of the US, then it washed up on the banks and lobster became abundant during a time when there was great poverty so people went on the beaches and ate it because they were desperate. But even now, people don’t like it with eyes and legs on. We are incredibly squeamish. We only like to eat things that are cute, like piggy wiggys and cows. We think ‘that’s so cute lets have that for dinner’, but we don’t think the other way round.”
And if that makes you shudder, then look away now – the fact is that most people are already unknowingly consuming insects. “Insects are in everything,” says Gaye, because food regulations permit a certain amount of insect parts. “Peanut butter, orange juice, tinned tomatoes – we can’t avoid it.”
Whether we like it or not, the insects are coming. Grubs up!