One of the many continents in the world that have traditionally eaten insects (and still do) is South America. In the mountains of Peru they enjoy long white stringy tayno kuro worms that grow in arawanku plants, cooked in clay pots with corn. Or the bright orange waykjuiro worms that feed on tayanka trees, fried with chillies. On lower ground they wade through streams to harvest chanchu chanchu, which are larvae of fish flies and eaten alive after removing the head. In the forests, fallen trees provide the perfect home for chiro worms, or longhorn beetle larvae that can grow up to 15cm long. Chiro worms are fried whole and taste like sausage. Palm grubs are also gathered by villagers and eaten raw.
Pictured above: Maguey worms (gusanos de maguey) in a Mexico City restaurant
Venezuela is the place to crunch large tarantulas, including the world’s largest Theraphosa leblondi that can be as big as dinner plates. They are prepared by roasting them whole in a fire. These giant arachnids have muscle-like white meat in their legs and abdomen and taste like crab.
In Mexico, they have an annual festival called Jumil Day in which they harvest and eat jumiles, which are a type of stink bug. These are very much an acquired taste (very strong flavour with distillate and medicinal notes), made more palatable ground in a paste with tomatoes and chillies. More pedestrian and better tasting are grasshoppers (chapulines), which are eaten all over the country, typically pan-roasted with lemon, salt and garlic and often served in tortillas. Mexico is the home of tequila made from the agave cactus that is also home to the famous agave worms, both red and white. But the worms you sometimes find on your tequila or mezcal bottle are not agave worms at all but maguey worms, the larvae of giant skipper moths that also feed on maguey cacti used to make mezcal. These are often served with refried beans, cheese, sour cream and guacamole in corn tortillas. Ant larvae and pupae are also on the menu of some restaurants, called escamole.
While insects are an important food source and eaten by necessity in some traditional rural communities, they can also be highly prized and offered to special guests.
Acknowledgements to Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio and their book Man eating bugs- the art and science of eating insects (Material World Books)
As dietitians the most common question we get asked is, why entomophagy? Of all the interests you could have in the field of food and nutrition, why choose insects? Our first response is to say it just makes sense. We are both committed nutrition professionals who want people to be as healthy as they can and enjoy a nutritious diet. We are also scientists and understand the many threats posed by environmental degradation and the contribution we are making to this degradation through what we eat and the way we live. There must be a better way. The food we eat plays a significant role in our total ecological footprint so each of us can do our bit in what we choose to eat. Insects offer a significantly more sustainable protein food source than other animals, especially red meat. We wouldn’t go so far as to say we should stop eating meat, but many people in rich countries could eat less, and insects represent a nutritious alternative. Moreover, insects represent an opportunity to achieve food security for those in poorer countries. Variety is the spice of life, and insects can add to the amazing variety of foods we can choose from.
Some may baulk at chomping on whole insects in all their leggy glory, however we believe the future will look more familiar. Insects will take their place as high protein ingredients in popular food formats, as we’ve seen in other countries in the form of cricket pasta, crackers, crisps and snack bars. We’d like to help the emerging food-as-insects industry by providing nutrition expertise in all aspects including nutrition research, product development, recipe development and nutrition communications. While eating insects is not new or unusual for 2 billion people, it is new in Western countries and we’d like to help spread the word- dare we say create buzz- about what insects can offer in both good nutrition and better environmental sustainability. If that sounds interesting to you, please be in touch.
What do insects taste like?
Asking what do insects taste like is akin to asking what vegetables taste like; there are so many and they’re all different. It really depends on the insect species and life stage. There are thousands of edible insects and even the same insect can taste different at different life stages. You can eat insect eggs, pupae, larvae and adults and their flavour and nutritional composition varies. Ants are probably the most strongly flavoured due to the presence of formic acid – that familiar dead-ant smell you get when you squash them gives a zingy sensation on the tongue. Crickets when dry roasted are more textural than flavoursome, giving a soft crunch and an experience a bit like chewing peanut skins. They also have an earthiness that comes through when cricket powder is used as an ingredient in baked foods. They take on flavours like garlic, herbs and spices easily and flavoured crickets are an intensely savoury sensation with some crunch that is well suited to a snack-in-your-hand, dare I say with a beer! Mealworms have a little more fat and this gives them a more nutty taste and texture. The deep-fried moth pupae we tried in Bangkok (a typical place Westerners have tried insects) was sprayed with vinegar and again offered a very savoury sensation akin to salt and vinegar chips. If you’ve tried others, please let us know what you thought.
A selection of insect dishes (and refreshing beverages)
How do you eat them?
Insects are very versatile and in traditional insect eating cultures they have been enjoyed in casseroles, soups, stir fries, omelettes, salads, pies, cakes, rice dishes, desserts and drinks Roasted flavoured crickets and roasted mealworms are good for snacking just as they are. Cricket powder is a versatile ingredient you can add to smoothies and baking. Ants are great to use in small quantities as a colour and flavour ‘pop’, as many high-end chefs have done. You can also buy tea with ants. Insect products also include snack bars and confectionery. In overseas markets there are loads more ways to enjoy insects such as in pasta, crispbreads and cookies. Top-end restaurant chefs are doing marvellous things with insects on their menus, such as Barangaroo House in Sydney (save up for this dining experience), while Mexican restaurant El-topo also in Sydney offers a more affordable and authentic Mexican starter of crickets with chilli, garlic and lime.
Meal worm quich
Where do you buy them?
Most insects and insect food products are for sale online in Australia (such as The Edible Bug Shop), although they are available in supermarkets in more insect-advanced countries, such as Finland, Spain and The Netherlands. Some retailers are starting to carry cricket protein bars but they’re not yet as easy to find In Australia (this will change). You can buy plain whole frozen crickets or dry roasted plain or flavoured crickets. You can also buy cricket powder that is simply ground roasted crickets. Other approved insects for sale are roasted meal worms and black tyrant ants, and various other products from time to time when retailers have special permission to produce sell other species (scorpions anyone?). As the market grows and develops, the availability of insects will increase, and we can’t wait!
While eating insects in Western countries is a relatively recent phenomenon, in many parts of the world the practice is ancient.
In Australia, our Aboriginal brothers and sisters have gathered insects for millennia. The most notable is perhaps the widjuti (witchetty) grub, which is the larvae of one of several types of cossid moth found around the roots of acacia trees. Author of Man Eating Bugs Peter Menzel describes eating widjuti grubs lightly roasted in the fire as follows, “the worm’s skin is crispy and light; the flesh creamy and delicate…like nut flavoured scrambled eggs and mild mozzarella, wrapped in filo pastry…capital-D delicious”. Honey ants were also commonly eaten high-energy bush tucker. “Bush coconuts” are actually galls caused by the intrusion of a scale insect Crystococcus achiniformis on a tree.
South East Asia is a region where insects have been on the menu for some time, and still are in many places. As for Laos, insect farming is seen as a path to economic and food security in Cambodia where you can buy fried crickets and cicadas and fresh ant eggs in the Phnom Penh market, and deep-fried tarantulas not far away in the countryside. Weaver ants are foraged by families to supplement their diet. Those of us who have been to Bangkok, Thailand, will have seen the outdoor market stalls with weird and wonderful foods including insects. The site of giant deep-fried waterbugs as big as duck eggs would challenge the most adventurous gastronome. Giant red ants aren’t as big but take plenty of commitment to harvest without being bitten and taste a bit like bacon bits when deep fried. Termites are similar. Fried Insect appetizers are available in bars around Chiag Mai and include fried bamboo worms, June beetles, mole crickets, grasshoppers and giant red ants. In Laos the World Health Organisation ran The Edible Insect Project to revive the practice of farming and eating insects for better nutrition and improved food security. They published a book called Edible Insect Recipes including such delights as mealworm cake, fried palm weevil and basil and silkworm nam deuang (filled omelette), pan-roasted grasshopper, Gan Om cricket (soup) and bamboo worm stew. In Indonesia, people from Bali eat dragonflies and bee larvae, the Iran Jayans eat cicadas and stink bugs, and many people throughout sago growing areas eat sago palm grubs, typically barbequed on a stick.
Food rules dictating what is edible and what’s not are richly rooted in culture, and this can change over time. Environmental imperatives may just accelerate the change toward bug cuisine all over the world.