Bugs are coming to your plate. More than 2 billion people around the world already rely on insects for some part of their diet. In Thailand, the Netherlands, and even the United States, there are farming operations underway to raise food-grade bugs for humans to crunch. And if you’re going to be eating bugs, you might as well learn how to cook them well.
That’s why Marcel Dicke, an entomologist, teamed up with another bug scientist and a chef to make the case for insects as a sustainable protein option to feed the world–and to make them accessible and delicious for everyone to prepare at home. His new book, The Insect Cookbook, released this week, gives information on bugs’ nutritional values alongside recipes, names of insect farms and interviews with politicians, chefs, insect farmers, and food designers.
The reasons to turn to bugs for food are many. Insects leave a much lighter footprint on the environment, says Dicke. While it takes about 25 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef, it takes just 2.2 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilograms of cricket meat–and 80% of the cricket body is edible, compared with just 40% to 55% for pigs, cows, or chickens. And there is a huge variety of insects to be eaten. “We have identified about 2,000 species,” says Dicke. The most popular are locusts, beetle larvae, and caterpillars.
When it comes to flavor, the insects can mirror things we eat today. “Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is quite similar to an insect,” says Dicke. “If you take wings and legs off locust and then look at a shrimp, you end up with similar product.” He suggests that if a diner enjoys bacon, you’ll like buffalo worms (which are not worms but larvae of the buffalo beetle). Dicke’s own favorite recipes from the book include a quiche with mealworms, a salad with fried locusts, and a chocolate cake with locusts in it.
Far from concealing the unique flavors in flours or other sauces, some chefs have embraced the insect flavors. Noma, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Denmark that has been ranked the best in the world, sometimes puts live ants on its menu. “They have a very distinctive lemon-grass flavor, that is not otherwise available from the ingredients native to Scandinavia,” says Annika de Las Heras, Noma’s public relations coordinator. “Most recently, the way we have used ants is by freezing them and then grinding them, and using them as a spice.”
David George Gordon, Seattle chef and author of the Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, says that unusual flavors are easy to find in the bug world. “If you’re looking for an exotic flavor, I recommend trying giant water bugs from Thailand–they have a taste like gin-infused watermelon,” he says. “Or dried ants from China–they have a very complex flavor, with hints of soya sauce, almond, and ginger.”
But what to swill when noshing on a tarantula or a caterpillar? It depends on the dish, certainly. “The traits of the 1,900 edible insects are more diverse than the mammals,” says Michael Bom Frøst, director of the Nordic Foods Lab. “So which wine to match does not make sense in that light.”
Last year in London at Pestival, the Nordic Food Lab served a tasting menu with insects. With this they served a gin (with distilled ants, Antygin) and tonic, with a dash of red cocchinelle color, derived from bugs. “We designed an oatmeal worm stout to fit some of the food as well, and rounded the menu off with a honey mead with our dessert, as it fit the story line of the menu.”
Frost adds that his lab’s experience seems to show that the feed may be even more important for insects than for other animals, so the taste of an insect can be changed. “Imagine the difference between a wild grasshopper fed on luscious green plants and compare that to one fed cardboard and stale fish flour,” he says.
How to get people over the ick factor of eating insects is a significant hurdle, but it’s been done before, says Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Sushi was an unlikely food when it was first introduced to Americans in the 1950s,” he says.
Together with two students, Matthew Ruby and Chris Chan, Rozin has set about to survey attitudes about insect meat in Americans and middle-class Indians. They found that not all insects are created equal: in both cultures, people had the biggest qualms about eating cockroaches, and the fewest objections to eating ants. The results of his full study will be presented in May at “Insects to Feed the World” in the Netherlands (organized by Wageningen University and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization).
In addition, the group found that the most palatable way to eat insects is to grind them up into a high-protein flour, “which of course you don’t see the insects and isn’t strong-tasting,” says Rozin. “You could replace wheat or corn flour and you get better nutrition and you wouldn’t have a taste issue.”