THE GRUB CLUB
They’re sustainable, nutritious and even tasty, and it’s time they were on your plate. Yes, insects are coming to a cafe or restaurant near you. LINDY ALEXANDER explores the buzz surrounding the latest superfood
We usually try to keep bugs and insects away from our plates, but a growing number of chefs are embracing little critters as an important part of the sustainable food movement. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is standard practice for almost two billion people worldwide. Can that many bug eaters be wrong? According to Edible Insects: Future
Prospects For Food And Feed Security, a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, entomophagy has numerous nutritional and environmental benefits. Research has found that bugs are a viable alternative source of protein that produce less greenhouse gases and use less land than chicken, pigs and cattle. In short, edible insects are eco-friendly.
Entomologist and food scientist Skye Blackburn started breeding insects in 2007 and runs the only farm for them in Australia. “We supply over 30 cafes and restaurants nationwide with things like cricket powder, whole crickets, mealworms and ants,” says Blackburn, who is based in western Sydney.
“Insects have a lot of protein and essential micronutrients like calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, B vitamins and amino acids. They’re healthy, versatile and sustainable.”
Sustainability was one of the main reasons chef Atick Elahi put crickets on the menu of Mexican restaurant El Topo in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. “Our current agriculture industry is one of the biggest contributors to global warming,” he says. “We need to change the way we produce food to cope with the increased demand on our natural resources. Edible bugs are the best option.”
Mexican cuisine traditionally uses insects – like chapulines (grasshoppers). “We serve our crickets with garlic, dried red chilli, fresh lime zest and sea salt,” says Elahi. “They taste slightly nutty, which balances nicely with the zingy lime and heat of the chilli.”
While some find bugs unappetising, many of us have already had them in the form of red cordial, as the colour is often derived from the cochineal beetle. And insects likes witchetty grubs, honey ants and moths have long formed part of bush tucker for Indigenous Australians.
Billy Zarbos of Melbourne cafe Jethro Canteen in Richmond likens the wariness some people experience to the introduction of sushi in Australia. “We thought raw fish was unappealing and unhealthy at first, but now it’s mainstream,” he says. “Insects will follow a similar path.” Crabs, prawns, and lobsters are arthropods too, and they’re considered delicacies. Harvested insects, it’s often said, have better diets.
The response to having insects on Jethro Canteen’s menu has been overwhelmingly positive. “People tend to initially pick up the crickets with tentative fingers before they crunch them like popcorn,” adds Zarbos. “Eating insects is predominantly a visual hurdle, but once they get over that nearly every person has enjoyed them.”
So many leading chefs have embraced nose to tail dining that edible insects are surely the next logical step. Sydney chef Kylie Kwong has previously incorporated edible insects, including roasted mealworms and dehydrated earthworms, into dishes at her restaurant Billy Kwong.
Most people are prepared to give insects a try, says Matt Stone from Oakridge, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. “Though many people are not going to be eating scorpions straight away,” he says. “I tried one in Thailand and you really have to crunch through their hard shell.” What is appealing to Stone about using insects is that they can be fed on restaurant scraps. “A year or two ago I was breeding insects on food waste,” he says. “It’s something that I want to focus on again in the future.”
Ecological reasons aside, for chef Damon Amos of Detour in Brisbane, taste comes first when putting insects on the menu. “I can add insects to a dish but if there’s no benefit to them being there the dish won’t work,” he says. “I sampled cockroaches, worms, ants and crickets. I liked the way cockroaches tasted like toasted almonds, but there’s no way you can get Queenslanders to eat cockroaches – they’re associated with dark, dingy and dirty places.”
Amos’s first dish was literally a can of worms. He currently serves gunpowdercured salmon with green curry and black ants. “The ants mimic citric acid and go really well with seafood,” he says.
At a recent Noma pop-up in Mexico, acclaimed chef Rene Redzepi served a tostada with poached escamoles (large ant eggs). He also served green tea ants with a mango dessert at Noma, Sydney. Redzepi told The Washington Post recently that ants can taste like blue cheese, coriander or lemon.
If you can get past the creepy crawly factor, insects are really just a new flavour, says Judith Treanor. The Sydneybased online retailer travels to Southeast Asia regularly and enjoys a beef dish with red tree ants in Siem Reap, Cambodia. “Food choice comes down to culture and what we are used to,” Treanor says. “What may seem strange to some is perfectly normal to others.”
For those looking to venture into entomophagy, food and cooking coach Aimee Clark from the Sunshine Coast suggests trying roasted crickets.
“That’s the entry level into insect eating,” she says. “I always have a bag of roasted crickets in the pantry.”