TRAVEL: In­sect din­ing in Lon­don.

Amid the ex­cess of Ar­chi­pel­ago’s Em­pire-themed decor, Pa­trick Lau tests his ap­petite for the Lon­don restau­rant’s in­sect dishes.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents The Week - Pa­trick Lau

It’s rain­ing when I land in Lon­don, and there’s not much to be said about that. The queues out­side the Bri­tish Mu­seum ex­tend for half a kilo­me­tre in both di­rec­tions and crawl around the block, but that’s to be ex­pected too. Mustn’t grum­ble. My shoes squelch a tragi­comic com­men­tary as I shuf­fle along.

In­side, though, it’s shoul­der to shoul­der and mug­gier than a ter­rar­ium. I end up in the En­light­en­ment gallery, star­ing at a kun­stkam­mer: a cab­i­net of cu­rios, as­sorted with­out dis­cre­tion, that rep­re­sents a fas­ci­na­tion with both nat­u­ral his­tory and hu­man in­ge­nu­ity. This one is mostly rare ma­te­ri­als worked to baroque de­tail – a nau­tilus shell carved with topo­graph­i­cal por­traits and land­scapes, a hu­man like­ness chis­elled from a wal­nut shell and “a translu­cent agate made into a cas­ket”.

Late that af­ter­noon I meet up with my din­ing com­pan­ion at The King and Queen, a pub near to our cho­sen restau­rant, Ar­chi­pel­ago. Ally, a pescatar­ian, knows the area well but has never ex­pe­ri­enced this no­to­ri­ous din­ing house. It ad­ver­tises it­self with the slo­gan “Ex­plor­ing the ex­otic”.

“First, a lit­tle magic trick,” a wait­ress says on our ar­rival. We each take one of her prof­fered pastilles and drop them into bowls of shred­ded rose petals be­fore she pours some hot wa­ter in. I’m ex­pect­ing tea; in­stead, the lit­tle discs in­flate rudely and wag­gle about like overex­cited mush­rooms. “They’re not marsh­mal­lows,” the wait­ress tells me just in time, “they’re hand­tow­els.”

The menus are printed on the back of maps and scrolled up into lit­tle jew­ellery boxes, pat­terned with what could equally be a Celtic knot or a mandala or some­thing else en­tirely. They boast of ze­bra and crocodile, Burmese and Caribbean and half a dozen African cuisines.

But we’re mainly here for the in­sects. Ar­chi­pel­ago is one of those restau­rants that were seem­ingly ev­ery­where a few years ago – part nov­elty, part avant­garde – that con­cerned them­selves with push­ing a cul­ture of bug cui­sine into Western din­ing. Many read­ers would have heard ar­gu­ments about sus­tain­abil­ity and health, and that in­sects are preva­lent in much of the world’s diet. None­the­less, I can’t think of the last time I saw ants or cen­tipedes make it onto a menu.

With this in mind, we make a cou­ple of se­lec­tions, or­der a bot­tle of wine, and set­tle in.

Ar­chi­pel­ago is small, with per­haps 10 ta­bles. It looks like the front room of an old hand come home from the colonies. Dusty icons from sev­eral con­ti­nents jos­tle with­out def­er­ence to time or space or, in­deed, cul­tural trib­al­ism. A carved tor­toise floats up one wall, be­hind a stuffed pea­cock nest­ing on a hat­stand. A cho­rus line of dolls – Ja­vanese? – dance along a long­boat of some kind. Bud­dha smirks from ev­ery cor­ner. Is this a lingam or a pes­tle? And that a mask or a shield? I can’t tell what’s func­tional and what’s sym­bolic.

The room stinks of Em­pire and van­ity. A vom­i­to­rium an­nexe wouldn’t sur­prise. It’s over­stuffed with an op­u­lence that lacks con­text, like the first panel of a Hierony­mus Bosch viewed in iso­la­tion. All that’s miss­ing is a bone-backed comb. A skull. A ser­vant, whis­per­ing in my ear.

See­ing the Bud­dha I re­mem­ber the para­ble of Sid­dhartha the prince, so ab­sorbed in ex­cess that he didn’t know the con­cepts of hunger, sick­ness or death. I find my­self won­der­ing if it isn’t sin­ful to have so many types of life­form in one sit­ting. And what are the ethics of eat­ing, say, ze­bra? Is there an eth­i­cal-sus­tain­able healthy an­gle?

But it’s too late to navel-gaze once the first dish ar­rives. And any­way, there’s no deny­ing I’m hun­gry.

The waiter lays our shared ap­pe­tiser, a salad with the ti­tle of Sumer Nights, in the cen­tre of the ta­ble. Laid out like the af­ter­math of a Ser­gio Leone gun­fight, a dozen in­sects lie in a smear of chilli paste. Some have had their wings and limbs tossed vul­garly askew; oth­ers have their ap­pendages tightly folded across their bod­ies. Not for the last time that evening, it oc­curs to me how much these black, pan-fried crick­ets re­sem­ble the af­ter­math of a hearty spray un­der the fridge with Mortein. A sim­ple salad of bit­ter rocket, quinoa and baby spinach ac­com­pa­nies them. It’s the kind of unas­sum­ing leafy mix that I as­so­ciate with cherry toma­toes and wal­nuts. The pars­ley feels some­how out of place.

I’d en­vis­aged crick­ets as a dish to be some­thing brown and flaky and larger. Some­thing more sim­i­lar to pap­pad­ums or spring rolls: cock­tail-party fin­ger food, deep-fried and salty. I squish one onto my fork, count to three, and munch. It’s not crispy. But it is crunchy – crunchy and si­mul­ta­ne­ously soggy, a bit like a sautéed prawn with the shell on. I roll my tongue around look­ing for tex­tures, but I can’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween leg and wing, ex­oskele­ton and flesh. Some­thing pops un­der pres­sure and squirts a warm, bit­ter liq­uid. Was that the brain, I won­der. The eye­ball?

“It smells like a squashed cock­roach,” Ally says thought­fully.

My teeth are coated with shreds of cricket skins like flakes of dried chilli. A gulp of wine washes them down. The tem­pranillo, we agree, was a good choice. It’s a gen­tle wine and free enough of tan­nin that it matches the bit­ter dish; sweet enough to con­trast with the briny juice of the bugs, but cheap enough to fit my bud­get. As soon as we’ve pol­ished off the crick­ets, our mains ar­rive. I’ve de­cided on jerked al­paca with cas­sava and corn­meal frit­ters, ac­com­pa­nied by chilli and but­ter­milk jel­lies. It’s gamey, very fill­ing – and un­threat­en­ing. We don’t eat many an­i­mals whole, which is per­haps what makes in­sects a lit­tle un­set­tling. Once meat is butchered and cooked it could be any­thing, com­ing with a sort of anti-Brechtian alien­ation, a re­verse ver­frem­dungsef­fekt. Seafood is a com­mon ex­cep­tion, and Ally has gone for es­co­lar with a potato and tofu “chorizo”. The es­co­lar, a deep-sea fish, has the chewy con­sis­tency and meaty flavour of a smoked had­dock. The next day, my be­lated re­search will warn me that the es­co­lar is some­times called the “Ex-Lax fish” and is renowned for its lax­a­tive qual­i­ties. The oil con­tent of the flesh, and its pro­cliv­ity to in­duce ke­ri­or­rhea (“waxy flow”), has led to its pro­hi­bi­tion in Italy and Ja­pan.

But of course we leave room for a side dish. Our “love-bug” salad fea­tures oak let­tuce gar­nished with meal­worms and lo­custs. The worms are tiny in­of­fen­sive things rem­i­nis­cent of puffed rice; they hardly regis­ter on the tongue, dis­in­te­grat­ing be­fore they reach the mo­lars. I could see them do­ing great ser­vice in a kind of tapi­oca pud­ding, per­haps, but in a salad they’re a poor cousin to the lo­custs.

If I were to take one thing away from this meal, it would be to warn your din­ner guest be­fore they or­der es­co­lar. But if I were to take a sec­ond thing, it would be that you can make a pretty de­cent crou­ton out of a lo­cust. Lo­custs are ev­ery­thing that crick­ets should be, as a foodstuff at least. The crackle of a lo­cust on the teeth is its own re­ward, as si­mul­ta­ne­ously sat­is­fy­ing and more-ish as Pringles. They’re close to taste­less – the only note is a hint of toaster scrap­ings. But there’s an

Old Tes­ta­ment irony in­volved in chow­ing down on a fork­ful. I vaguely re­call a scene in The Good Earth when the peas­ants, af­ter beat­ing off a swarm of lo­custs with thresh­ing flails, made a feast of their re­mains.

The meal feels com­pre­hen­sive. Of course, we haven’t gone near the python, os­trich or kan­ga­roo – half the Bri­tish Em­pire ren­dered as in­gre­di­ents – but hav­ing cov­ered so much new ground in one sit­ting we’re happy to re­tire. I’d won­dered about the “Me­dieval Hive”, fea­tur­ing “brown but­ter ice cream, honey and but­ter caramel sauce and a baby bee”. But I’m re­lieved when the waiter in­forms us that the lat­ter in­gre­di­ent is out of stock. Baby bees are not in sea­son, he says.

Hap­pily, I’m be­yond full – my stom­ach holds the bones of fish, flesh and good red lo­cust. Any­thing more would be only glut­tony.

A dish at Ar­chi­pel­ago, Lon­don.

PA­TRICK LAU is a Syd­ney­based arts and cul­ture writer.

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