Saturday, 16 May 2015

Let’s Eat Insects: Introduction

In addition to writing about Slow Food this year, I am here starting a new series of posts on edible insects.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are more than 1,900 insect species consumed as food worldwide. These edible insects are mainly beetles (order Coleoptera); butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera); bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera); grasshoppers and crickets (Orthoptera); termites (Isoptera); true bugs (Hemiptera); and cicadas (Homoptera). At least 250 insect species are consumed in Africa, 549 in Mexico, 180 in China, and 160 in the Mekong area. In addition, a number of insect species are eaten in Japan, especially wasps, and a few in Australia.

The FAO estimate that around 2 billion people around the world eat insects as part of their normal diet. Yde Jongema, a taxonomist of the Laboratory of Entomology of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has compiled a comprehensive list of edible insects (see link below).

The first international conference on insects for food was held in Wageningen in May 2014, with participants from over 45 countries attending. This conference highlighted the great potential of insects for human food and animal feed. Insects have a good nutritional quality and they can provide a much cheaper source of protein, with a much lower environmental impact, than many current farming practices.

In Europe, there is much less of a tradition for eating insects (entomophagy) than in Mexico or Asia. The big challenges are raising awareness and changing perceptions, and establishing high-tech mass-rearing facilities, mainly for livestock feed and aquaculture but also to supply the increasing demand for insect protein in the human diet.

Here in Wales, we are getting out first taste of edible insects this year, through a Mexican dish that has been served in Wahaca in Cardiff, and via Grub Kitchen in Pembrokeshire.

Wahaca was founded by Thomasina Miers with the goal of bringing a more street-food orientated Mexican cuisine to the UK. Insects, sustainably farmed in Mexico and specially imported, were first served in Wahaca’s flagship Covent Garden (London) restaurant. Wahaca opened in Wales for the first time in St David’s in Cardiff city centre late last year, and one of the street food specials available earlier this year was ‘Chapulines Fundido’ - a dish made using crickets.  The crickets are fried with onions and chillies to create a brown tapenade-style paste, which is smothered with melted cheese; the dish was accompanied by corn tortillas. The crickets give this dish a nutty/smoky flavour. Its novelty value made it a popular choice, but it also helped shift perceptions about what eating insects is all about. There was no obvious insect parts on the plate, just a nutritious, flavoursome and sustainably produced protein ingredient.

There are 13 edible insect products in the Slow Food ‘Ark of Taste’. We will look at them all in another blog post. Of the 5 from Mexico, one is the Chapulines described above, and another is Chicatana flying ants. These were featured in a recent BBC Radio 4 ‘The Food Programme’ spot on Ark of Taste products. In this programme, Thomasina Miers described how the ants were collected, prepared and used in traditional Mexican dishes. There is a link to the programme below.

Grub Kitchen, near St David's in Pembrokeshire, meanwhile, is planning to serve a whole menu based on insects in its restaurant. Owner and Head Chef Andrew Holcroft is adapting and devising dishes for the British market, including bug burgers, cricket kofta kebabs, bug burritos, Mexican red Chapuline grasshoppers, and even bamboo worm fudge ice cream. Andrew is a keen advocate of insects as a sustainable source of protein, and hopes they can be mainstreamed into the British diet within 10 to 15 years. Grub Kitchen, the first UK insect restaurant, is the first step to achieving this goal.

Grub Kitchen is associated with ‘Dr Beynon's Bug Farm’, a science attraction run by entomologist Dr Sarah Beynon where edible insect dishes can be sampled. Bug Kitchen are taking their educational show on the road to festivals and schools this summer. They are also looking to ‘pop up’ to serve you a selection of edible insect dishes - I'll report on that in my next ‘Let’s Eat Insects’ posting!

Links and references:

FAO data on edible insects:

List of insects eaten worldwide compiled by Wageningen University (the pdf list can be downloaded here; but beware before printing - it runs to 79 pages):

BBC Radio 4 ‘The Food Programme: The Ark of Taste’: Dan Saldino talks to Thomasina Meirs about Chicatana flying ants:

Andrew Holcroft of Grub Kitchen talks to BigHospitality:

SlowFood posts:

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