It all started when a friend chirpily told me there was a decomposed wasp in every fig as she handed me one to eat. I was intrigued and repulsed, but it got me thinking. Why was I so disgusted by the idea, when around two billion people eat insects all over the world.
In South Asia you’ll find ant eggs resembling caviar, known as escamoles in Mexico where they have been eaten since Aztec rule. On the African continent, palm weevil larvae are one of many grubs on the menu and look like pigs in blankets. Casu marzu, a delicacy enjoyed in Sardinia, is a cheese writhing with live maggots.
In Japan too, insects are a delicacy. An ‘Insect Cuisine’ group hosts regular ‘Tokyo Insect Eating Festivals’ in the capital, celebrating a long heritage which includes around 80 recorded species, from silkworms to hornets.
Last month, Sainsbury’s became the first UK supermarket to stock critters in their food aisles, launching Eat Grub’s BBQ crickets soon after a UN special report warned we have only a dozen years to keep global warming under 1.5C. Amongst the ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes’ needed to achieve this, it suggested eating less meat and dairy.
Rachel Eyre, head of future brands at Sainsbury’s, said: “Insect snacks should no longer be seen as a gimmick or something for a dare, and it’s clear that consumers are increasingly keen to explore this new sustainable protein source.”
Charlotte Payne, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, explained the environmental and health benefits.
While insect farming requires high temperatures and humidity, its ecological footprint is much lower than other livestock, using up to 50% less land per kilo of protein. Nutritional content varies just as it does in different types of meat, however many insects are high in iron, calcium, zinc and protein.
Payne is an advocate for insects eaten unapologetically. She said: “I understand that powdering insects and grinding them up is potentially necessary as a gateway but at the same time I really think it’s much better that we just enjoy our food. Everywhere they’ve been eaten for however long in living memory, they are considered delicious.”
But how did I find my ‘bug week’ challenge?
Vegan except for bugs, sometimes referred to as an ‘ento-vegan’ diet. Practically, this meant veganism with bugs in some form daily, but not necessarily every meal. I tried to loosely match the dishes with an area where the insects are eaten, but my recipes are in no way authentic.
I started off with a visit to the exotic Fitzrovia restaurant Archipelago, to let the professionals cook my first ever creepy crawlies for me. I chose a pan-fried chermoula cricket salad (unusually seasoned, unlike anything I’d ever tasted), spicy tofu curry with coriander rice and queen leafcutter ants (like crispy smoky bacon with the texture of unpopped popcorn – so delicious I devoured the whole spoonful in about thirty seconds flat), and a poached baby bee with honeycomb (which blended into the honeycomb in taste and texture), brown butter ice cream and caramel sauce. The restaurant was fabulously quirky, and the evening did the trick for getting me over my psychological barriers.
Grasshopper stir fry. I roasted the grasshoppers in coconut oil and then stir fried them in toasted sesame oil with pak choi, tenderstem broccoli, fine beans and mangetout, spinach, garlic, fresh ginger and sesame seeds. Grasshoppers are full of flavour, like a crispy fried fish skin, both in consistency and lightly fishy in taste. My favourite recipe of the week, you can find it here: https://www.eatgrub.co.uk/cook/grasshopper-stir-fry/
Moroccan-inspired carrot soup with cumin, allspice, honey and lemon. Garnished with a dollop of soya yoghurt, toasted and ground cumin seeds and toasted buffalo worms. These are nutty and crunchy, like the seeds. I was so used to insect-eating by now, and so hungry and tired after a long day that I didn’t even notice the worms.
Critter fritters. Ground crickets and locusts, whole mealworms and buffalo worms, mixed with corn, fresh and ground chili, spring onions, celery, red onion, fresh ginger, chives, coriander, lemon juice, and garlic. Served with grilled corn on the cob, ratatouille veg and paprika-spiced soya yoghurt. Spicy and delicious, I noticed the bugs even less.
Mexican chapuline crickets with chili, peanuts and garlic, white onion, pomodorini, red and green peppers in corn tortillas with homemade guacamole from a Mexican recipe – the best guac I’ve ever tasted (even if I do say so myself), but spicier than I expected. The smokey-tasting crickets won me over, after a lukewarm first date with them on Monday night.
Inspired by a traditional Zimbabwean recipe, I cooked my mopane worms, or caterpillars, in a tomato and peanut butter sauce over rice. Earthy like truffles and mushrooms, these are a little gritty like shellfish, but not unpleasantly so. The sauce was so creamy I couldn’t believe it was dairy free!
I mixed my leftover mealworms and buffalo worms into an ‘ento-vegan’ pancake breakfast to finish the week, with honey and warm berries adding to the mix of textures.
10/10, would eat again! Throughout the challenge I felt sated, healthy and full of energy, and I loved how creative it made me in the kitchen. Cooking times were less than similar meat dishes, without worrying about meat being cooked through. I got over the ‘disgust factor’ early in the week and once I’d overcome that psychological barrier, the bugs never fazed me. As far as I’m concerned, I just ate good food for a week.
If you’re feeling inspired, Grub Kitchen’s award-winning chef Andy Holcroft shared his top tips for bug-eating novices: “Firstly, make sure your insects are from a human grade source, don’t just go out to a garden and pick any. And the other thing would just be trial and error – have some fun, and don’t burn them!”