In the basement kitchen of Archipelago restaurant in central London, the head chef, Daniel Creedon, is putting the finishing touches to his most popular salad. He takes a wok off the stove and spoons a pungent spicy red sauce onto a bed of salad leaves, sliding it over the counter with a grin.
At first glance the dish looks like any other Thai salad, all vibrant colours and punchy aromas packed with chilli, galangal and garlic. But look a little closer and it's not long before I recognise the unmistakable shape of a light brown locust, complete with bulging eyes, spindly legs and a long ridged tail. The crickets are harder to spot. They're smaller, darker and have lost their large hind legs making them look frighteningly like mini cockroaches.
Even the most hardened Western gastronome would be forgiven a moment's hesitation. We are, after all, not a culture that is particularly fond of nibbling on insects, but soldier through the immediate yuck factor and they are surprisingly tasty.
The crickets, oven baked and flash fried in classic Thai spices, have a passing resemblance to crispy pork. The locusts, however, are a bit more of an acquired taste. As I pop one of the long-bodied creepy crawlies into my mouth and bite down I'm hit by chilli and then the taste of truffles – a sort of earthy, damp flavour that reminds you of a wet autumn.
The idea of chowing down on a rubbery grub of slimy insects fills me with dread but these particular creepy crawlies are wafer-dry and practically disintegrate in your mouth like a crisp. "If you want to try insects, crickets and locusts are a great place to start," explains the restaurant's 33-year-old head chef who, incidentally, trained in classic French cuisine before turning to more exotic foodstuffs. "They tend to taste of what they've been feeding on and are great transports for the flavours that you cook them with."
In the West we are remarkably dismissive of insect cuisine, known to those who take the subject seriously as entomophagy. But for an estimated 2.5 billion of the world's population insects are part of the daily diet.
Mexicans prize the nauseously named stink bug for its flavour, blending them to make sauces, popping them into tacos or even eating them whole. In southern Africa, bars stock sacks of mopane worms, a meaty caterpillar that goes well with a cold beer. The night markets in Thailand and Laos are an insect-eater's paradise. Deep-fried locusts, giant water bugs and marinated silk worms are just some of the more common insects wolfed down.
Archipelago is one of just a handful of restaurants in the UK that actually cook insects, which they obtain from a supplier in China. Owned by a South African-born entrepreneur, Bruce Alexander, it caters for the gastronomically adventurous, serving up unusual meats such as crocodile, zebra and kangaroo.
Their "Love Bug Salad" remains one of their most popular dishes, along with their chocolate-covered scorpion – imported by the only person in Britain with a licence to bring scorpions into the country.
"There's some highly scientific way they take the venom out of the sting," says Mr Creedon. "I have no idea how they do it but it works. And the scorpions taste great with chocolate."
Restaurants like Archipelago only really work in Britain as something of a novelty. The odds of us becoming a nation of insect-eaters are slim. But beyond the hilarity and adventurism that comes from tucking into a locust and cricket salad is a more serious point being made by proponents of entomophagy. "Insects are such an abundant food source that it seems crazy not to use them," remarks Mr Creedon. "We've just got to get over our fear of eating them."
The world is already struggling to feed itself, a crisis that shows no signs of abating unless population trends make a sudden U-turn over the next five decades. The oceans are being plundered at such a rate that – according to a recent UN report – even if we halve the number of fishing trawlers operating, fish stocks would still be unable to replenish themselves quickly enough to recover. Developing world nations such as India, China and Brazil, meanwhile, are cultivating their own rapidly expanding middle classes who are emulating the West in their demand for meat.
To farm enough animals to match that demand, the world will have to hugely increase the amount of cereals it grows for feed, something which will inevitably hit poorer countries that are already struggling to feed themselves or pay for imported grain than it will the world's rich. Throw in the spectre of increased water scarcity caused by a rapidly warming globe and you have a full- blown global food crisis.
A growing body of food scientists, meanwhile, believe insects are a potential way out of this mess. Even though up to a third of the world still eats insects, they remain one of the world's largely untapped food sources with an estimated 40 tonnes of insects for every human on the planet. So far more than 1,400 insects have been documented as edible but there are likely thousands more species out there yet to be sampled.
Patrick Durst is a senior forestry officer at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has begun a global campaign championing insects as a food source. He works out of Thailand, thought to be the only country in the world where insect consumption has increased over the past 20 years. That particular anomaly is thought to have been largely fuelled by the migration of millions of poor Thais from the country's north-east – where insect consumption is high – to cities like Bangkok. Throughout the rest of the world, however, insects play an increasingly minor role in people's diets.
"The globe is only really one generation away from a time when eating insects was widespread and socially acceptable," Mr Durst says. "Insects can play a crucial role in food security. We have to be cautious about how great a role they can play, but we have to begin teaching people not to look down on eating insects."
What makes insects particularly attractive is how energy efficient they are. Scientists at the Netherlands' Wageningen University recently published a study which found that 10kg of feed produces 9kg of locusts compared to just 1kg of beef, 3kg of pork and 5kg of chicken. Many insects, meanwhile, have similar protein levels to red meat but contain more vitamins and less fat.
Monica Ayieko, a consumer economist at Kenya's Maseno University, has spent many years studying communities living around the Lake Victoria region. Many of the older locals still gather termites and water flies as part of their daily diet but the trend is diminishing among younger members. "We have been eating insects for hundreds of years but because people want to copy the attitudes of developed Western nations they are doing it less and less," she says. "It's a common misperception that Africans only eat insects when they are starving. We don't eat them because we are starving, we eat them because they are healthy and nutritious."
If the price of meat keeps going up in our supermarkets, perhaps we should start doing the same.
Diet: The little things that matter around the world
Bugs play a large role in Latin American cooking, particularly in places where indigenous communities are strongest. Brazilians, for instance, are less into their insects, but in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, where indigenous cuisine was taken up by colonists, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and butterfly larvae are frequently used in cooking.
Caterpillars and grubs are a vital source of protein for millions of Africans. For every 100 grams of dried caterpillars, there are about 53 grams of protein, about 15 per cent of fat and about 17 per cent of carbohydrates. The insects are also believed to have a higher proportion of protein and fat than beef and fish.
South-east Asian nations such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia eat more insects per head of population than any other country. Chinese gastronomes also ascribe all sorts of health properties to various insects. Baked tarantula – cooked in a clay pot to remove its hair – is a popular Cambodian treat. Islam and Judaism both forbid insect consumption other than locusts.
The cooking bug...
Deep-fried grasshoppers in batter
A classic Thai street food dish.
¾ cup flour
¾ cup milk
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 egg beaten
1 cup grasshoppers or locusts
Dried red chilli flakes
Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Sift if necessary to take out any lumps. Add the milk and beat until smooth. Add the egg and beat into mixture. If you want to add a bit of a kick, add some chilli flakes.
If you're squeamish, you might like to take off the wings, legs and head of the grasshopper, but the insect can be eaten whole. Dip them in the batter and deep-fry. Serve with a sweet Thai chilli dip if you want to add some sweetness.
Stink bug pâté
Despite their name, stink bugs are actually one of the most delectable of insects.
1/3 pound roasted stink bugs
10 chicken livers
4 cloves garlic
1 small onion
1/8 tsp salt
Black pepper, to taste
Oregano, to taste
Marjoram, to taste
Powdered bouillon, to taste
Olive oil, to taste
Place chicken livers in a saucepan with the garlic, onion, salt, and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove the chicken livers and place in a blender or food processor, reserving the broth. Add the roasted stink bugs and about 1/4 cup of the reserved broth and purée, adding more broth as needed, until mixture is smooth and reaches a spreadable consistency. Add spices and oil to taste. Place in a wooden bowl and serve with crusty French bread.
Source: 'Creepy Crawly Cuisine' by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy
A popular dish in southern China.
1/2 cup vegetable oil
30-40 scorpions, washed
125g fresh pork
1 large garlic bulb, crushed
3cm fresh chopped ginger
1/2 litre water
1 handful dried Chinese dates
1 handful dried red berries
1 large carrot, sliced
Heat the oil in a large wok. Stir-fry the scorpions for 20 seconds. Add the pork, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir-fry briefly, then add the water slowly. Add the other ingredients and simmer on a low heat for 40 minutes.
Source: World Museum Liverpool
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