Mealworm haggis, bee sandwiches, coconut cricket rice cakes – is your mouth watering yet? If not, you wouldn’t be the only one. But why not?
People don’t like to put unfamiliar things in their mouths. But insects are familiar. We learn about them from an early age and see them flying or scuttling around all the time. And crucially, their consumption is also extremely sustainable, economical, ethical and nutritious.
There’s just one catch – most people think they’re disgusting. So what do we do? Ignore the bugs that could completely revolutionise our food industry? This question is central to the work of the leading psychologist Dr Paul Rozin, who is trying to shape our food future with his research into edible insects.
After years of working on human food choice and aversion, he has discovered that disgusting things have a special property. When they touch something edible, they render it inedible. For example, if a cockroach falls into your glass or orange juice, even for just a second, it’s almost certain that you wouldn’t drink it. Even if there were no traces of the cockroach, and despite the fact that cockroaches are obsessively hygienic creatures, you’d consider it contaminated.
This type of disgust that we feel towards insects isn’t just to do with disliking something. You may dislike brussel sprouts, even hate them. But only those with Brumotactillophobia (a fear of touching food) would refuse to eat a plate of food just because one had come into contact with it.
People find disgusting things offensive; Rozin has even found that cockroaches provoke similar emotional reactions to Adolf Hitler. But insects are not an inherently disgusting food. An estimated 3,000 ethnic groups and 80 per cent of the world’s nations eat insects in one form or another. Around 2,000 species have been documented as food, and form the traditional diets of around two billion people. This means that two out of every seven people’s traditional diets involves insects.
People are enjoying insects across the world, from Africa and Southeast Asia to Australia and the Americas. Even Kofi Annan and the United Nations have been promoting their consumption, along with Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.
Shami Radia is the co-founder of Grub, a UK-based company that sources and sells edible insects. He has seen how normal insect-eating is around the world, and the central role it can play in certain communities. “When the termites take to the air around Lake Malawi, people catch them,” he says. “It's a fun game for the kids. The termites are seasoned and fried, and they're really tasty, a bit like roasted peanuts.”
There is a common misconception that insects are a type of “famine food”, only eaten by the poor or downtrodden. Yet in the markets of southern Africa, Radia found mopani worms being sold for a higher price than beef. The idea that they are eaten out of desperation comes from the misconceptions we have of places like Africa and indigenous America.
As insect-eaters (or “entomophiles”) will attest to, insects do not taste disgusting. So the question for the world’s ento-preneurs is this: how can we get insects into people’s mouths? Part of the answer could be making people realise that they are doing so already. In fact, if you have ever eaten a food containing red dye – whether it’s a yogurt, jam, pie, donut, ice cream, or sauce – it’s likely that you’ve eaten cochineal beetle. Or, if you’ve ever put on lipstick, there’s a good chance you’ve had it all around your mouth.
Yet survey after survey confirms what most of us suspect to be true: people do not want to eat insects. According to Rozin, if people try eating something just 5-10 times and find it reasonable, it will eventually become normal.
This normalisation process has happened before, and can happen again. Rozin provides two examples of societies learning to love “disgusting” food.
Indigenous Americans have a long history of eating chili peppers, and European colonisers also learned to eat them through what Rozin calls a “bottom-up process”. As with insects today, peppers were originally dismissed as something people ate out of desperation. The first people to start eating them in America were slaves and impoverished families.
Back in the 19th century, if someone ate a dish made up mostly of chilis then it was barely seen as a meal at all. In 1826 the American writer JC Clooper said this about people who ate chili con carne: “When they have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for a family; this is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat - this is all stewed together.”
Rozin has also detailed how Sushi was introduced through a “top-down” process, with Japanese businessmen entertaining their counterparts in metropolitan Los Angeles and New York. The initial response to it has perhaps been captured best by the TV producer Peter Bazalgette. “In the discreet charm of the suburbs I was born into in the 1950s, the suggestion of consuming raw fish would have been revolting (and, just as bad, foreign),” he wrote in 2014. Yet now, you can find sushi restaurants all across London and the UK. And according to a 2014 American survey, sushi is now more popular than pancakes, ice cream, and donuts.
The watershed moment for both chilis and sushi came when they became economically viable to source on a mass scale. As Bazalgette points out “nobody regarded smoked salmon as raw, though it was. But then, in the days before fish farming, nobody could afford it anyway.”
For insects to gain a similar level of popularity they need to be cheaper to farm. But at the moment mini-livestock farms are in their embryonic stage, often held back by lack of research and strict regulations, which are driving up the consumer price.
The current financial barrier to mass popularity is a shame, because insects are a tasty and versatile ingredient. When I spoke to the chef Sebastian Holmes, he told me about how much he loves cooking with cricket flour. “[It] is a personal favourite of mine because it’s so versatile to cook with and has a really exciting flavour,” he said. “I use it in baking and it takes on a cocoa powder quality, while in some savoury recipes it has a subtle shrimp flavour, which can really bring a dish to life.”
And that’s just crickets - there are at least 1,900 more edible species for us to choose from, and their supply could potentially be endless.
These are exciting times for chefs and their customers. We all know that the food industry needs to change, whether it’s for environmental or ethical reasons. So you should try an insect or two. The only thing stopping you is your disgust, which may not be as rational – or sustainable – as you think.
Insect recipes for you to try for yourself
– Rice Cake
- 100g glutinous rice, washed and soaked in water over night (sticky rice)
- 1 lemongrass stick, sliced into 4 chunks
- 30g desiccated coconut, toasted in the oven
- 40g red curry paste
- 40g Grub crickets, roughly chopped
- 150ml fish sauce
- 1egg, 1 egg yolk
– Chilli & Garlic Dip
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 pinch of salt
- 500ml vegetable oil (for deep frying)
- 4-6 dried long red chillies (de-seeded if you dont like too much heat)
- 3 slices of ginger
1. Drain the glutinous rice from the water it is soaked in and mix with the crickets and lemongrass, then steam for 40-45 minutes in a rice steamer until cooked. When cooked remove from the steamer and place in a mixing bowl to cool a little, make sure it is still warm.
2. When warm add the egg, egg yolk, toasted coconut, red curry paste and the fish sauce, be sure to remove and discard of the lemongrass chunks. Once all ingredients are combined squeeze them into roughly the same sized balls and flatten with the palms of your hand, leave aside to cool.
3. Make the deep-fried chilli and garlic oil. Begin by heating the oil in a wok to 160 degrees. Pound the garlic and the salt together in a pestle and mortar then deep-fry until golden and fragrant, remove and drain on kitchen roll. Repeat this process separately with the chillies, then the ginger, allow to cool. Once cool pound the crispy garlic, chillies and ginger together in a pestle and mortar / or food processor then add a little of the deep-frying oil to bind it all together, if needed add a little more salt.
The edible cricket rice cakes are best served hot straight away with the dipping sauce and a salad. Once made they can be refrigerated, or frozen but ensure to heat them thoroughly before consuming.
- 235 g whole-grain flour
- 15 g cricket flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 tsp maple syrup or honey
- 500 ml milk or almond milk
- Grated zest from half a lemon
- Sunflower oil or butter for frying
- 400 g strawberries
- 2 tbsp honey or maple syrup
- 2 tbsp chia seeds
- Vanilla essence
For the pancakes with cricket flour, pour all the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Now add the wet ingredients, and whisk thoroughly. The mix should be quite runny, like thin yogurt. Leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 min, or overnight.
To save time, you could use two frying pans at the same time. Turn up the heat to medium, and add a bit of butter or oil to the pan. When sizzling, pour about 100ml of the mix unto the pan, and tilt the pan so it covers the whole surface. You might have to turn down the heat to medium-low. After a couple of minutes, turn the pancake around and repeat for the next one. Remember to add some more butter or oil again. Stack the pancakes on top of each other on a piece of foil.
For the strawberry jam, cut the green off the strawberries and cut them in half. Add the pieces to a saucepan on medium heat, and boil them for about 5 minutes. Blitz the strawberries up roughly with a hand blender, but keep a few intact. Now add the honey, chia seeds and vanilla, and boil for another 15 min on low heat, while stirring regularly. The texture should be quite firm like jam. Once ready, let cool.
- Bee larvae*
- 1 egg white
- 1 tsp butter
- 1/4 tsp honey
- 1 tomato
- 1 leaf lettuce
- 2 slices of bread
- 1 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1 pinch salt
Sautee the bee larvae in the butter, with a tiny bit of salt and a few drops of honey.
Once larvae become golden brown and crispy-looking, remove, and mix into enough egg white to cover and bind them into a mass.
Return them to the sauté butter, pressing them together into a patty.
Toast bread, and slice tomato. Spread mayonnaise on toasted bread when ready.
When bee patty becomes firm, place it atop the lettuce and tomato on the sandwich. Enjoy!
*Naturally, I would never recommend a bug-gredient that is threatened. I primarily eat drone larvae, which I get from from beekeepers whom I’ve bee-friended. Unlike worker bees, the drones’ main purpose is to mate with the queen: they do not particiapte in pollination, nurse larvae, or help with hive construction. They buzz from hive to hive to see if anyone needs any mating done, and there are generally an excess of them. It is for this reason that beekeepers often consider them a drain on colony resources. Many beekeepers have a special comb just for drones, which they sometimes use as bait for potential parastites. Periodically, they remove this comb altogether, toss it into the freezer to kill any “extras” like mites, and then either throw it away or feed it to chickens, if they have any. If more people knew how delicious they are, I think the chickens might have to peck elsewhere!
4. Mealworm Haggis
by Bugs for Life
- 100g fresh mealworms
- 100g oatmeal
- 200g puy lentils, drained
- 2 small brown onions, diced
- A few sprigs of finely chopped rosemary
- A few sprigs of finely chopped thyme
- Plenty of cracked black pepper
Heat oil in a pan, add onions and soften for a few minutes.
Add in some chopped fresh thyme and some chopped fresh rosemary.
Next add some puy lentils that have pre-boiled for 20mins.
Then add your Scottish oatmeal.
Add in some mealworms, and finish off with a little salt and pepper.
Wrap the fried mix in a sausage skin, and boil for around 20 mins.
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