Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects
Entomophagy, or the consumption of insects, is a hot topic—and not because it is cool to try weird foods.
Tiny black chicitanas rolled around in the hot skillet. Chef Hugo Ortega looked up and smiled as if to say: This is going to be good! He was ready to turn students at the University of Houston into ant eaters. Chicitanas are flying ants—a coveted delicacy in the chef’s native Mexico. While insects might be a normal part of his food vocabulary, his use of them also puts the Houston-based chef at the forefront of a culinary movement: exploring the deliciousness of insects.
Ants, beetles, grasshoppers, scorpions—a plethora of insects (and their larvae) are eaten in countries the world over. I’ve been to markets in Hong Kong and Bangkok where fried insects (including fat, swollen silk pupae and whole fried scorpions) were as common as bundles of kai lan and bok choy. Yet in Western culture, even the thought of eating insects is often met with disgust.
A few years ago, the UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognized that in order to meet future food demands, alternative food sources must be explored. In collaboration with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, FAO conducted a research into the viability of insects as a protein food source, which culminated in the 2013 publication Edible Insects—Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security: “To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today [..] and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated.”
The global discussion about the need to address the unsustainable demand for popular proteins like beef is zooming in on edible insects. Entomophagy, or the consumption of insects, is a hot topic—and not because it is cool to try weird foods. Easy to farm without the massive carbon footprint of conventional meats and with zero waste (you eat the whole thing), insects are also high in protein and other nutrients including calcium, iron and vitamin A.
Still, in a society that prefers its meat to be as disconnected as possible from the animal it came from—skinless, boneless, headless— critters with antennae, eyes and little legs are not likely to become a national staple. So how can we raise insects’ profile as a desirable protein?
Key is how it appears to the uninitiated. Said Tiffany Legendre, assistant professor at the UH Conrad N. Hilton College and specialist in food innovation, sustainability and edible insects: “If you cook lamb poorly, no one will like it. It is the same with insect. It is a food source but in order to make it delicious, you need to do something with it.”
Insect products like protein bars, granola and crispy snacks are on the market already. Legendre showed me jars of Mealworm Bolognese and Cricket Arrabiata from One Hop Kitchen. It’s part of C-fu Foods, a company founded by Cornell food science graduate Lee Cadesky and brother Eli. Cadesky developed a “cricket tofu” (c-fu) in 2014 while at the university. The sauces are made with that cricket tofu, now marketed as Textured Insect Protein (TIP). TIP can be made with any edible insect and can be used to make burger patties, for instance, said Legendre.
My own experience with insects processed into a food product goes back to 2012 when I was at Slow Food’s international food fair. The Nordic Food Lab (the culinary research team of celebrated Chef René Redzepi at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark) presented a grasshopper garum. It was part of their ongoing research into the “deliciousness of insects”. It tasted just like fish sauce to me. The recipe— grasshoppers, fermented pearl barley koji, filtered water and salt, all mixed in a blender and left to ferment for 10 weeks—can be found among the many documents in the Nordic Food Lab’s Bug Folio, along with other recipes like bee larvae ceviche and moth mousse.
Consumers who order and use whole or ground crickets in their home kitchens can find a host of enticing recipes, from cricket spring rolls, cheddar cricket biscuits, black bean cricket taquitos and cricket bibimbap to banana cricket bread and chocolate cricket cookies.
At an average $38 per pound for whole roasted crickets and even higher for cricket flour, the price, however, is steep. “Yes, it is,” said Legendre. “That goes back to mass production. The market isn’t developed for insects yet and it means companies are taking a risk.” To further develop a cricket-farming infrastructure and increase it to mass production “requires a lot of research and technology and that requires a lot of funding,” said Legendre.
For Chef Hugo Ortega, entomophagy is in his blood. He grew up in the mountains near Oaxaca, Mexico, cooking with his grandmother and acquiring a natural taste for gusano, escamoles, chapulines, known in English as agave worms, ant larvae and grasshoppers. Wrapped in a handmade tortilla with a dark, spicy mole, herbs and guacamole, anything would taste good, right?
“In Pre-Columbian times, I believe the diet was quite simple, and bugs played a big role in cooking.” Chef Ortega casually nibbles on a handful of chapulines as he talks. The chef came to the university campus to talk about insects in his cuisine, and to cook them for a tasting.
“The best way to cook the insect,” he said, “is a little white onion in hot oil, add the insects and finish with a little cilantro and a pinch of salt.” He rolled a spoonful of ants in the hot skillet as he talked, then dropped them in a masa tartlet and finished them with a spicy mole sauce. Behind him, students of the Hilton College plated the little ant tartlets and passed them around. Curiosity (and perhaps even drooling over the tempting-looking tartlets) won everyone over and the insect bites disappeared without a trace. The same thing happened when Chef Ortega sent out tasting plates of his chapulines tacos: roasted grasshoppers nestled in chipotle-tomatillo salsa and topped with guacamole.
“If I wanted to cook insects at home, where could I buy them?” one of the students asked the James Beard Award–winning chef. “Come to Oaxaca!” he laughed.
Legendre is convinced that chefs can play a huge role in erasing the “ick factor.”
“I really believe the insect has a great future [as a food],” she said. “But in order to make the transition as consumers we need a lot of chef efforts, like Chef Hugo.”