Guess huhu: grub’s up in Hokitika
storm. A 6ft 4in part-fijian who lives on the banks of the Waita River, he is the fifth generation to gather the tiny creatures.
Whitebait is a New Zealand institution, the young of local freshwater fish. They are sometimes crumbed and fried as we cook our saltwater whitebait; but more often they’re mixed with beaten egg and cooked like little fishy omelettes with a mild flavour and a soft, noodle-like texture.
Some of what’s on sale wouldn’t be unfamiliar to British diners. The Girl Guides’ “Westcargots” are just snails with garlic butter, and other stalls sell venison burgers and wild boar. Offal features widely (sheep’s testicles being a favourite); but there are duck hearts on the menu at my local wine bar, and Racine on London’s Brompton Road serves tête de veau, albeit in more refined form than the griddled brains I was offered.
The genially tipsy crowd at Hokitika is half a world away from the middle-class foodies who patronise high-end metropolitan establishments in Britain. But when a crowd of boys cheered on a mate as he dangled a grasshopper above his open mouth, it didn’t seem so different from the frisson of tacit admiration around a table when a London sophisticate at Smithfield’s St John orders rabbit offal and spinach. Both are doing their bit to make eating overlooked foods — offal and bugs — acceptable. It’s an important issue.
Recently, governments have been taking insect consumption seriously. With the world population growing at a terrifying rate, the planet is increasingly stretched to produce adequate nutrition. In 2009, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation predicted that we would need to increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050.
Insects and buglife may come to the rescue as a cheap, sustainable way to source large amounts of protein, and far more efficient, in terms of converting feed to edible weight than, say, beef cattle. There’s a centre at Wageningen University in the Netherlands headed up by “insects as food” crusader Marcel Dicke.
This is unlikely to raise many eyebrows in south-east Asia. Snacking on scorpions, silkworm grubs and locusts is commonplace in countries where a bag of bugs is the local equivalent of a packet of crisps.
In parts of South America, too, they form a normal part of the diet. As Alex Atala, the charming Brazilian chef who specialises in jungle food, told me, “if you give an Amazonian Indian a piece of lemon grass or ginger, they’ll say that it tastes of ant”.
Nor are we Westerners immune to the charms of the six-legged. One of the stalls at Hokitika was selling chunks of tangy, bittersweet manuka honeycomb – like all honey, made by bees from nectar and their enzymatic secretions.
But, ready source of nutrient aside, can insects or bugs themselves be as delicious as honey, or a packet of crisps, for that matter? Is there any other reason to eat creepy-crawlies?
There was no more time to prevaricate. I lifted the huhu grub to my lips and bit its head off, like some hideous sci-fi jelly baby. It tasted woody, not dirty or unpleasant. Rusty nodded. “If you were lost in the bush, you’d be glad of that.”
Maybe. But I’m not trying the horse semen. A girl has to draw the line somewhere.
Sustainable snack: Xanthe prepares to eat a huhu grub, above; above left, New Zealand whitebait; above right, smörgasbord,˚ New Zealand-style