Dining: Gourmet grubs

29 Aug 2018 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Spider skewers at Bugs Cafe, Cambodia

In just 120 years our global population has grown fivefold, from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 7.5 billion today. By 2050, we’re on track to exceed nine billion people. It’s no secret that our food resources are under massive pressure with demand for meat at an all-time high – worldwide production has tripled in the last 40 years. Whether it’s the colossal volumes of energy and water used for rearing and processing livestock, or the acres of rainforest cleared to generate cattle pasture (40 per cent of Central America’s jungle – so far), the harmful effects on the natural world are becoming irreversible.    

The solution? Insects, apparently. Reviled as vermin by much of the West, they’ve been part of human diets for millennia (the practice is mentioned in the Bible as well as in ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese texts) with more than 2,000 species reported as edible. Thanks to developments in new food technology, it’s looking like they could be one of the most sustainable creatures to farm on the planet.

Edible bugs aren’t as niche as you might think – some two billion people consume them today in their normal diet: june and dung beetles are popular with communities in the Amazon basin, butterfly larvae are favoured in parts of Africa, and giant waterbugs, crickets and silkworms are a common snack in Thailand.

Putting squeamishness to one side, insects are packed full of nutritional goodness: protein-rich, low in fat, and some species, like crickets, have up to four or five times the amount of Vitamin B12 that beef does. According to Dennis Oonincx, an expert in entomology (the study of insects) at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, insects’ fatty acid profile is also very good. “This is definitely true for aquatic insects [such as the giant waterbug from Thailand], and it can be true for mass-produced, terrestrial insects,” says Oonincx. “Looking at a cricket’s fatty acid profile, if they have Omega 3 fatty acids in their diet, they will use these efficiently. And as a source of protein, insects are comparable, or in certain cases better, than conventional livestock.”

Scallops and crispy bamboo caterpillars from Backyard Bangkok

The environmental and economic arguments are also persuasive. Any form of farming requires energy, which creates greenhouse gases, but the disadvantages of farming insects compared with livestock are fairly minor: much less land and water are needed, emissions are lower, and it’s even possible to rear some insects on organic side streams like manure.

As Oonincx says: “Most insects are simply more efficient. Insects are cold-blooded – ants do not waste energy keeping their bodies at a certain temperature, therefore can use the feed more efficiently. When we compare cricket or locust production to conventional livestock, there are lower inputs and therefore
higher efficiency.”

In short, insect farming requires less energy, creates less pollution, offers high-value nutrition and costs less to mass-produce. What stands in the way of mass adoption is of course cultural perception – but this is slowly changing. In the US, insect farms like Enterra Feed and Beta Hatch have already attracted investment for their animal feed businesses, which process insects like black soldier flies and mealworms into food for fish and poultry. McDonalds is also looking at using insects for chicken feed to cut its dependency on soy protein.

Western companies are also developing insects for direct human consumption, like Bitty Foods, which sells ready-made cricket-flour chocolate chip cookies, Next Millennium Farms, which sells seasoned and roasted crickets and mealworms as snacks, and Aspire Food Group, which farms palm weevil larvae and crickets for products like protein bars, and says they are “actively working to normalise consumption of insects in the Western world.”

In Asia, this cultural barrier is lower thanks to a shared history of entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) that carries into the present day. Across the region, Australia, China, India, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam all currently farm insects for commercial consumption. One such outfit is Asia Insect Farm Solutions (AIFS), an eco-industrial initiative based in Kuala Lumpur. The group has focused its efforts on farming crickets for cricket powder that can be used to make bread, pastries, pastas or added to shakes and smoothies.

Bugsolutely cricket pasta

Co-founder Raavee Shanker says the market for edible insects is still in its early stages, but that growth is afoot. “Governments and big corporations have recognised the potential and are now beginning to commit time and resources into firming up the regulations and developing the edible insect market.” According to emerging trends research firm Arcluster, it’s an industry forecast to be worth more than US$1.5 billion by 2021.

“In Europe, new legislation is in place to allow producers of edible insects to have their products authorised under the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” says Shanker. “Once this is done, retailers can sell insect-based foods to consumers in the EU market. Likewise, in Singapore, a call for public opinion was released to assess the feasibility of insect-based food products to be sold in supermarkets. These are signs that the market is opening up on a global scale.”

It is, and in Asia especially. Based in Shanghai, Bits x Bites is China’s first food technology venture capital firm, investing in start-ups that tackle challenges in the food system. One of its eight companies is Thailand-based Bugsolutely, which produces protein-rich “cricket pasta” made from 20 per cent cricket flour. The company’s Chinese branch has also launched a silkworm flour-based crisp snack called Bella Pupa (which last year won the Food and Beverage Innovative Forum’s Most Innovative Food award), capitalising on the 500,000 tonnes of silkworms farmed in China each year.

The company says nutritionally silkworms have twice as many essential amino acids as pork and chicken, and ten times the zinc and magnesium values of milk.

In an interview with CNBC, Bits x Bites founder Matilda Ho said she believes China could be a catalyst for the entomophagy industry. “Our view is that China has a real opportunity to kick off insect food adoption on a wide scale because cooked insects can be found in many ethnic cuisines across the country,” she said. “But having a cultural linkage isn’t enough; we have to make the product tasty, nutritious, convenient and affordable.”

Ants on a Shrimp, Noma

She added: “With China’s talent, fast technology adoption, and risk capital, having a healthy good food innovation ecosystem can have dramatic and lasting impact on food sustainability. We’re just at the beginning to shape this movement.”

While the commercial entomophagy sector gears up for growth, restaurateurs are delving into the gastronomy of insect cuisine. In 2008 René Redzepi, head chef at Noma (consistently voted the world’s best restaurant), set up non-profit Nordic Food Lab together with gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer to explore food diversity and the concept of “deliciousness”. A project dedicated to insect gastronomy led to a portfolio of 125 recipes and around 20 publications including investigations into the taste, scent, texture and production of insects for dishes like bee larvae ceviche, termite toast, fermented sauces made with grasshoppers, wax moth larvae and ant gin, to name a few.

Noma was one of the pioneers of “haute” insect cuisine, serving up live ants with crème fraiche at the restaurant’s 2012 pop-up at London’s Claridges, while at its Mandarin Oriental Tokyo 2015 pop-up, “live” shrimps (killed with a spike to the brain and served still twitching) were covered in dead ants to give the crustaceans a citrusy flavour. Other upmarket outfits include New York restaurant Toloache, where you can sample grasshopper tacos, while in London the menu at Archipelago in Fitzrovia includes a dish of pan-fried chermoula crickets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit.

In Asia, there are a number of options for the insect-seeking gourmand. Hong Kong’s People of Yunnan restaurant in San Po Kong opened in 2005 serving Yunnan-style noodles, but soon introduced fried cicadas, grasshoppers and dishes of fried bee and silk worm pupae with bamboo worms to attract intrigued diners. The tactic worked, and chef Li Qing finds that people are now seeking out insect-based dishes for their health benefits.

In Bangkok, cult restaurant Insects in the Backyard is headed up by chef Mai Thitiwat, whose menu puts insects front and centre. His cuisine draws on American, French and Mediterranean influences while including local Thai ingredients, designed to balance the texture and flavour of the insects. Tantalising options include the cream of chestnut soup with quail and bamboo caterpillar, the crab and giant water beetle ravioli with turmeric saffron sauce, and the silkworm powder tiramisu.

Backyard Bangkok’s classic Italian tiramisu made with silkworm powder

In Siem Reap, Davy Blouzard started Bugs Café with his cousin out of a motivation to educate tourists on the local custom, and pleasure, of eating insects. “Many people think that in Cambodia the tradition was a result of the Khmer Rouge tragedy, because people were starving,” says Blouzard. “During that time it did become more common, but insects have been eaten around the area of Isan – a very dry region that stretches across the north – for centuries, due to the insufficient yields from agriculture.”

Bugs Café serves a range of “Western dishes” made with insects in a way that they aren’t overtly visible. “The insect burger, our spring rolls with ants, cricket muffins or silkworms and taro croquettes are a perfect start for those who don’t feel comfortable with this kind of food,” says Blouzard.

“Our most popular dish is the discovery platter,” he continues. “An assortment of all the insects we work with, including the ant spring rolls, silkworms, a tarantula donut or samosa with spinach and feta, a scorpion, tarantula and giant waterbug skewer, and a wok with crickets and silkworms.”

For entomologist expert Oonincx this “concealed” approach is rather like tricking fussy toddlers into eating their greens, and not the best way to get people on board. “There are options where suppliers are hiding the insects, grinding them up to such an extent that you can’t recognise them, but personally I think if you have a good dish based on insects with a good story behind it, this is a better way to put it to market.”

Then again, Oonincx is far more comfortable around insects than most. For environmental, health and economic reasons, perhaps we should be open to munching down on a larvae lunch. But for most people, food with multiple legs and wings is still probably going to draw a small gasp of horror. Arguably, the more “disguised” and conventional-looking the better – at least until we’re used to the idea.

Marisa Cannon

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