GOURMET GRUBS

Are live ants and skew­ered scor­pi­ons com­ing to a fine-din­ing restau­rant near you?

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CONTENTS - WORDS MARISA CAN­NON

Would you care for some pep­per on your taran­tula? There are strong en­vi­ron­men­tal, health, eco­nomic and cul­tural rea­sons why we should add crit­ters to our cui­sine

In just 120 years our global pop­u­la­tion has grown five­fold, from 1.5 bil­lion in 1900 to 7.5 bil­lion to­day. By 2050, we’re on track to ex­ceed nine bil­lion peo­ple. It’s no se­cret that our food re­sources are un­der mas­sive pres­sure with de­mand for meat at an all-time high – world­wide pro­duc­tion has tripled in the last 40 years. Whether it’s the colos­sal vol­umes of en­ergy and water used for rear­ing and pro­cess­ing live­stock, or the acres of rain­for­est cleared to gen­er­ate cat­tle pas­ture (40 per cent of Cen­tral Amer­ica’s jun­gle – so far), the harm­ful ef­fects on the nat­u­ral world are be­com­ing ir­re­versible.

The so­lu­tion? In­sects, ap­par­ently. Re­viled as ver­min by much of the West, they’ve been part of hu­man di­ets for mil­len­nia (the prac­tice is men­tioned in the Bi­ble as well as in an­cient Greek, Ro­man and Chi­nese texts) with more than 2,000 species re­ported as ed­i­ble. Thanks to de­vel­op­ments in new food tech­nol­ogy, it’s look­ing like they could be one of the most sus­tain­able crea­tures to farm on the planet.

Ed­i­ble bugs aren’t as niche as you might think – some two bil­lion peo­ple con­sume them to­day in their nor­mal diet: june and dung bee­tles are pop­u­lar with com­mu­ni­ties in the Ama­zon basin, but­ter­fly lar­vae are favoured in parts of Africa, and gi­ant wa­ter­bugs, crick­ets and silk­worms are a com­mon snack in Thai­land.

Putting squeamish­ness to one side, in­sects are packed full of nu­tri­tional good­ness: pro­tein-rich, low in fat, and some species, like crick­ets, have up to four or five times the amount of Vi­ta­min B12 that beef does. Ac­cord­ing to Den­nis Oon­incx, an ex­pert in en­to­mol­ogy (the study of in­sects) at Wa­genin­gen Univer­sity in the Nether­lands, in­sects’ fatty acid pro­file is also very good. “This is def­i­nitely true for aquatic in­sects [such as the gi­ant wa­ter­bug from Thai­land], and it can be true for mass-pro­duced, ter­res­trial in­sects,” says Oon­incx. “Look­ing at a cricket’s fatty acid pro­file, if they have Omega 3 fatty acids in their diet, they will use these ef­fi­ciently. And as a source of pro­tein, in­sects are com­pa­ra­ble, or in cer­tain cases bet­ter, than con­ven­tional live­stock.”

The en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic ar­gu­ments are also per­sua­sive. Any form of farm­ing re­quires en­ergy, which cre­ates green­house gases, but the dis­ad­van­tages of farm­ing in­sects com­pared with live­stock are fairly mi­nor: much less land and water are needed, emis­sions are lower, and it’s even pos­si­ble to rear some in­sects on or­ganic side streams like ma­nure.

As Oon­incx says: “Most in­sects are sim­ply more ef­fi­cient. In­sects are cold-blooded – ants do not waste en­ergy keep­ing their bod­ies at a cer­tain tem­per­a­ture, there­fore can use the feed more ef­fi­ciently. When we com­pare cricket or lo­cust pro­duc­tion to con­ven­tional live­stock, there are lower in­puts and there­fore higher ef­fi­ciency.”

In short, in­sect farm­ing re­quires less en­ergy, cre­ates less pol­lu­tion, of­fers high-value nutri­tion and costs less to mass-pro­duce. What stands in the way of mass adop­tion is of course cul­tural per­cep­tion – but this is slowly chang­ing. In the US, in­sect farms like En­terra Feed and Beta Hatch have al­ready at­tracted in­vest­ment for their an­i­mal feed busi­nesses, which process in­sects like black sol­dier flies and meal­worms into food for fish and poul­try. McDon­alds is also look­ing at us­ing in­sects for chicken feed to cut its de­pen­dency on soy pro­tein.

Western com­pa­nies are also devel­op­ing in­sects for di­rect hu­man con­sump­tion, like Bitty Foods, which sells ready-made cricket-flour choco­late chip cook­ies, Next Mil­len­nium Farms, which sells sea­soned and roasted crick­ets and meal­worms as snacks, and As­pire Food Group, which farms palm weevil lar­vae and crick­ets for prod­ucts like pro­tein bars, and says they are “ac­tively work­ing to nor­malise con­sump­tion of in­sects in the Western world.”

In Asia, this cul­tural bar­rier is lower thanks to a shared his­tory of en­to­mophagy (the hu­man con­sump­tion of in­sects) that car­ries into the present day. Across the re­gion, Aus­tralia, China, In­dia, South Korea, Thai­land and Viet­nam all cur­rently farm in­sects for com­mer­cial con­sump­tion. One such out­fit is Asia In­sect Farm So­lu­tions (AIFS), an eco-in­dus­trial ini­tia­tive based in Kuala Lumpur. The group has fo­cused its ef­forts on farm­ing crick­ets for cricket pow­der that can be used to make bread, pas­tries, pas­tas or added to shakes and smooth­ies.

Co-founder Raavee Shanker says the mar­ket for ed­i­ble in­sects is still in its early stages, but that growth is afoot. “Gov­ern­ments and big cor­po­ra­tions have recog­nised the po­ten­tial and are now be­gin­ning to com­mit time and re­sources into firm­ing up the reg­u­la­tions and devel­op­ing the ed­i­ble in­sect mar­ket.” Ac­cord­ing to emerg­ing trends re­search firm Ar­clus­ter, it’s an in­dus­try fore­cast to be worth more than US$1.5 bil­lion by 2021.

“In Europe, new leg­is­la­tion is in place to al­low pro­duc­ers of ed­i­ble in­sects to have their prod­ucts au­tho­rised un­der the Euro­pean Food Safety Author­ity (EFSA),” says Shanker. “Once this is done, re­tail­ers can sell in­sect-based foods to con­sumers in the EU mar­ket. Like­wise, in Sin­ga­pore, a call for pub­lic opin­ion was re­leased to as­sess the fea­si­bil­ity of in­sect-based food prod­ucts to be sold in su­per­mar­kets. These are signs that the mar­ket is open­ing up on a global scale.”

It is, and in Asia es­pe­cially. Based in Shanghai, Bits x Bites is China’s first food tech­nol­ogy ven­ture cap­i­tal firm, in­vest­ing in start-ups that tackle chal­lenges in the food sys­tem. One of its eight com­pa­nies is Thai­land based Bug so­lutely, which pro­duces pro­tein-rich

“cricket pasta” made from 20 per cent cricket flour. The com­pany’s Chi­nese branch has also launched a silk­worm flour-based crisp snack called Bella Pupa (which last year won the Food and Bev­er­age In­no­va­tive Fo­rum’s Most In­no­va­tive Food award), cap­i­tal­is­ing on the 500,000 tonnes of silk­worms farmed in China each year.

The com­pany says nu­tri­tion­ally silk­worms have twice as many es­sen­tial amino acids as pork and chicken, and ten times the zinc and mag­ne­sium val­ues of milk.

In an in­ter­view with CNBC, Bits x Bites founder Matilda Ho said she be­lieves China could be a cat­a­lyst for the en­to­mophagy in­dus­try. “Our view is that China has a real op­por­tu­nity to kick off in­sect food adop­tion on a wide scale be­cause cooked in­sects can be found in many eth­nic cuisines across the coun­try,” she said. “But hav­ing a cul­tural link­age isn’t enough; we have to make the prod­uct tasty, nu­tri­tious, con­ve­nient and af­ford­able.”

She added: “With China’s tal­ent, fast tech­nol­ogy adop­tion, and risk cap­i­tal, hav­ing a healthy good food in­no­va­tion ecosys­tem can have dra­matic and last­ing im­pact on food sus­tain­abil­ity. We’re just at the be­gin­ning to shape this move­ment.” While the com­mer­cial en­to­mophagy sec­tor gears up for growth, restau­ra­teurs are delv­ing into the gas­tron­omy of in­sect cui­sine. In 2008 René Redzepi, head chef at Noma (con­sis­tently voted the world’s best restau­rant), set up non-profit Nordic Food Lab to­gether with gas­tro­nomic en­tre­pre­neur Claus Meyer to ex­plore food di­ver­sity and the con­cept of “de­li­cious­ness”. A project ded­i­cated to in­sect gas­tron­omy led to a port­fo­lio of 125 recipes and around 20 pub­li­ca­tions in­clud­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the taste, scent, tex­ture and pro­duc­tion of in­sects for dishes like bee lar­vae ce­viche, ter­mite toast, fer­mented sauces made with grasshop­pers, wax moth lar­vae and ant gin, to name a few. Noma was one of the pi­o­neers of “haute” in­sect cui­sine, serv­ing up live ants with crème fraiche at the restau­rant’s 2012 pop-up at Lon­don’s Clar­idges, while at its Man­darin Ori­en­tal Tokyo 2015 pop-up, “live” shrimps (killed with a spike to the brain and served still twitch­ing) were cov­ered in dead ants to give the crus­taceans a cit­rusy flavour. Other up­mar­ket

Nu­tri­tion­ally, silk­worms have twice as many amino acids as pork and chicken

out­fits in­clude New York restau­rant Toloache, where you can sam­ple grasshop­per tacos, while in Lon­don the menu at Ar­chi­pel­ago in Fitzrovia in­cludes a dish of pan-fried cher­moula crick­ets, quinoa, spinach and dried fruit.

In Asia, there are a num­ber of op­tions for the in­sect-seek­ing gour­mand. Hong Kong’s Peo­ple of Yun­nan restau­rant in San Po Kong opened in 2005 serv­ing Yun­nan-style noo­dles, but soon in­tro­duced fried ci­cadas, grasshop­pers and dishes of fried bee and silk worm pu­pae with bam­boo worms to at­tract in­trigued din­ers. The tac­tic worked, and chef Li Qing finds that peo­ple are now seek­ing out in­sect-based dishes for their health ben­e­fits.

In Bangkok, cult restau­rant In­sects in the Back­yard is headed up by chef Mai Thi­ti­wat, whose menu puts in­sects front and cen­tre. His cui­sine draws on Amer­i­can, French and Mediter­ranean in­flu­ences while in­clud­ing lo­cal Thai in­gre­di­ents, de­signed to bal­ance the tex­ture and flavour of the in­sects. Tan­ta­lis­ing op­tions in­clude the cream of ch­est­nut soup with quail and bam­boo cater­pil­lar, the crab and gi­ant water bee­tle ravi­oli with turmeric saf­fron sauce, and the silk­worm pow­der tiramisu.

In Siem Reap, Davy Blouzard started Bugs Café with his cousin out of a mo­ti­va­tion to ed­u­cate tourists on the lo­cal cus­tom, and plea­sure, of eat­ing in­sects. “Many peo­ple think that in Cam­bo­dia the tra­di­tion was a re­sult of the Kh­mer Rouge tragedy, be­cause peo­ple were starv­ing,” says Blouzard. “Dur­ing that time it did be­come more com­mon, but in­sects have been eaten around the area of Isan – a very dry re­gion that stretches across the north – for cen­turies, due to the in­suf­fi­cient yields from agri­cul­ture.”

Bugs Café serves a range of “Western dishes” made with in­sects in a way that they aren’t overtly vis­i­ble. “The in­sect burger, our spring rolls with ants, cricket muffins or silk­worms and taro cro­quettes are a per­fect start for those who don’t feel com­fort­able with this kind of food,” says Blouzard.

“Our most pop­u­lar dish is the dis­cov­ery plat­ter,” he con­tin­ues. “An as­sort­ment of all the in­sects we work with, in­clud­ing the ant spring rolls, silk­worms, a taran­tula donut or samosa with spinach and feta, a scor­pion, taran­tula and gi­ant wa­ter­bug skewer, and a wok with crick­ets and silk­worms.”

For en­to­mol­o­gist ex­pert Oon­incx this “con­cealed” ap­proach is rather like trick­ing fussy tod­dlers into eat­ing their greens, and not the best way to get peo­ple on board. “There are op­tions where sup­pli­ers are hid­ing the in­sects, grind­ing them up to such an ex­tent that you can’t recog­nise them, but per­son­ally I think if you have a good dish based on in­sects with a good story be­hind it, this is a bet­ter way to put it to mar­ket.”

Then again, Oon­incx is far more com­fort­able around in­sects than most. For en­vi­ron­men­tal, health and eco­nomic rea­sons, per­haps we should be open to munch­ing down on a lar­vae lunch. But for most peo­ple, food with mul­ti­ple legs and wings is still prob­a­bly go­ing to draw a small gasp of hor­ror. Ar­guably, the more “dis­guised” and con­ven­tional-look­ing the bet­ter – at least un­til we’re used to the idea.

Peo­ple are now seek­ing out in­sect-based cui­sine for the health ben­e­fits

THIS SPREAD: Dishes from Bugs Café; try­ing out spider skew­ers

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: Scal­lops and crispy bam­boo cater­pil­lars from Back­yard Bangkok; ant top­pings at Noma; and Bug­so­lutely’s cricket pasta

FROM TOP: Back­yard Bangkok’s clas­sic Ital­ian tiramisu made with silk­worm pow­der; bug dishes from Yun­nan Ren­jia Restau­rant

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