John Lethlean: eating insects. A culinary tour of Sicily.
Chefs write books to sell tables. Equipment manufacturers do it to sell gadgets (hello Thermomix). And, occasionally, food producers write books to sell … crickets. Yes, folks, we have an early contender for the coveted title of Stupidest Cookbook of the Year.
Introducing Eat Grub, a shameless promotional exercise by — can you believe it? — two cricket farmers and bug marketers in Britain. Just when you thought all that nonsense from chefs about insects being the next big thing was finally over, along comes a hardback devoted entirely to the subject of cooking bugs. It must be the first food book given over to a single ingredient very few of us can actually buy.
Even in England, whence authors and insect farmers Shami Radia and Neil Whippey hail, I don’t imagine you simply pop down to Tesco for buffalo worms when the urge overcomes you to whip up a batch of “spiced buffalo worm barbecue sauce”. Or mealworms when you need flour to make tortillas.
Putting self-sufficiency aside for a moment, the only way in Australia to get the ingredients required for most of the recipes in Eat Grub (why not simply Grub?) — as far as I know — is to purchase online.
Go to Edible Bug Shop online and, for a mere $260 a kilo, you can get frozen crickets delivered to your door “ready to use in your favourite recipe”. Wow! Does that mean I can make spaghetti carbonara with grasshoppers instead of guanciale?
“Crickets have a mild nutty taste, and take on the flavours that are around them,” says the website. “So are prefect (sic) for a curry or stir fry, just add them in 1-2 minutes before the end of cooking.”
Right then. They’re frozen and travel long distances; it’s not sounding like a gourmand local/ seasonal product with low food miles to me.
You can almost buy caviar for that kind of money but, then, a kilo of crickets is probably the equivalent of a plague capable of liberating all the Israelites from slavery first time round. Fortunately, they come in 250g packs ($65).
The authors of Eat Grub point out that nearly half the world’s population eat insects “while the other half find the very idea revolting”. I’m a bit of a fence sitter. But there’s a big difference between entomophagy (insect eating) and cooking with the things. And I’m all for the former. I know insects are a form of cheap and abundant protein with, therefore, a strong environmental argument.
But, like plenty of Aussies, I’ve eaten grasshoppers in Thailand; all I tasted was cheap soy sauce that left, as Dame Edna Everage once said of lesbianism, a foul taste in my mouth. They have crisp exoskeletons and are mushy inside. There were green ants on a dish at Noma in Sydney; used as an almost citric seasoning — like finger lime — they worked a treat.
And as Calvin W. Schwabe, author of one of my favourite food books, asks somewhere between the covers of who was the first person who looked at a lobster and thought “dinner”?
They’re all ugly critters, I get it, but you cook a lobster and it’s bloody sensational to eat. Insects, on the other hand, are more a kind of sensible protein pill, something you might do because you have to, not because you want to.
But, if you have to, and can be bothered ordering the things online, and can afford to eat insects … if you have a sudden infestation and want to take your revenge by eating the blessed things … if you wake up and realise life won’t be complete until you cook and eat red curry cricket rice cakes, grasshopper and maltose porridge or baked cricket and mushroom nut loaf … then is the book for you.
I’ll stick to tofu.