By Damian D'souza Jul. 27, 2016
Ants taste sour, larvae taste faintly of garlic and chocolate covered grasshoppers taste of... chocolate! Welcome to the world where bugs are food.
I’d just ordered a large strawberry shake and some fries from McDonald’s and as I proceeded to dunk my fries into the thick, frosty shake, as I sat there, surrounded by a bevy of tots and college students, looking for a suitable mate on Tinder, my swiping was interrupted by an incoming email. A friend had emailed me a link to an article about a new type of milk, the source of which was unbelievable. Tinder was being uncharitable, so I opened up the link.
It started off telling me how some science boffins had discovered a milk-like substance in the guts of a certain species of cockroach, which was found to be four times as nutritious as regular milk from gau mata and would be synthesised in a lab. This was touted as the solution to world hunger.
Now we’ve got a shit load of hipster milk that comes from rice, soy, yak, kangaroo, and maybe even unicorn. So, this was nothing new. But what this news did herald though, is something that makes me look like a weird twisted fuck, everytime I say the words, “We’re all going to have to eat insects if the human race is to survive. Insects are the food of the future.”
In my past avatar as a chef, I lived and breathed all things food. But for a brief period, I was also a curator of gastronomic experiences for a start-up. My job basically entailed eating everything from fancy frou-frou French fare to hearty six-course Parsi meals with chicken farchas that looked like they came from Big Bird, and commenting and writing on it. (That the start-up went defunct is a catastrophe I’m still coming to terms with.)
So yes, I’ve eaten quite a few memorable meals both on and off the job, ranging from prime A5 Wagyu washed down with 35-year-old Yamazaki to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with foie gras instead of peanut butter and port wine jelly. I regularly stuff a chicken into a duck into a turkey as an bi-annual Christmas/Easter ritual, but there is still one meal that beats the pants off the fancies. It was a home-cooked Assamese meal featuring polu leta fry. Say hello to the stir-fried silkworm pupae.
Insects are certainly more plausible and certainly more practical than pills. Also, nutritionally speaking, insects, pound for pound, are a better protein source than red meat.
I pride myself on being an adventurous eater, going through everything from pig brains to fish sperm (yes, I’ve been bukaked by dead fish) with an open mind and an eager palate. This, however, was my first time eating insect.
Anxious glances were exchanged. Our little team of tasters trouped into the kitchen of the Assamese chef. The mood was that of a swingers’ party, where everyone’s waiting to see who swings first.
I waded in and popped the pupae in my mouth after mouthing off a few lines about how insects were more sustainable than meat, and then I felt it, a faint crunch accompanied by a stream of dense, almost custardy liquid with a faint vegetal flavour, and a familiar garlicky one. I imagine my expressions went from “what the fuck” to “okay” and finally to “fuck that’s tasty”, as I tentatively let myself swallow. I can proudly say that for the remainder of the meal, I ignored the more mainstream offerings of goose and pork, and pigged out on polu leta fry.
The Assamese meal was the launch pad into my insect-eating adventures and I’ve discovered textures and flavours that I didn’t know existed. I know now that ants are sour, insect larvae or pupae have a distinctly creamy texture with the flavour ranging from herbaceous and mildly bitter to slightly sweet, depending on what they’ve been snacking on. Grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts have a crisp texture similar to dried shrimp because of their exoskeleton and have an almost mineral, nutty flavour.
If you’re gagging, then here’s a fact for you to chew on. Cephalopods or sea-dwelling creatures are no different from land-dwelling arthropods and arachnids. I’m throwing these complicated words at you, to get you to see that you may turn your nose up the land-dwelling insects, but you’ve sure as hell eaten their sea buddies. Let me spell it out: The prawn is nothing but an insect of the sea world.
Once you understand this, you will see why diners around the world are embracing these creepy crawlies. Noma, one of the world’s leading restaurants, frequently includes bugs on its ever-evolving menu with a dish of live shrimp garnished with ants. This is reflective of a changing food philosophy – including insects in a new culinary repertoire, built around sustainability.
In my chef days, I argued with people about how eating insects is actually being a whole lot kinder to the environment. Insects don’t need a particular feed to be grown specifically for them; water use is minimal, they breed at an astronomical rate, and mature a whole lot faster. I’ve lectured in earnest but most of them would tune me out after the words “eating insect” had been delivered.
India hasn’t really taken the bait when it comes to entomophagy except in the northeastern corner of our country, where insects often crawl their way to the menu. In the tribal belts of Assam, for example, silkworm larvae and red ant eggs are celebrated delicacies. Here, stuff like grasshoppers, bee larvae, and aquatic beetles are turned into spicy stir-frys, but asking someone from other parts of India if they would eat a deep-fried grasshopper or barbecued spider still comes across as preposterous even if you’re talking to a hard-ass non-vegetarian. The vegetarians simply hold their chests and splutter.
Scorpion and insect larvae lollipops.
Dan Kitwood/ Getty images
Speculation is rife among those calling the shots in the food industry. The questions everyone is asking, “What is the future of food? Twenty or 50 or maybe 100 years from now what will you and I be eating for lunch?”
One school of thought, dominated by futurists and food tech geeks, is that the nourishment we derive from food will someday be provided by pills like those in sci-fi movies and books. Imagine walking into a restaurant and ordering your butter chicken and tandoori rotis, and voila, a tiny orange capsule accompanied by a smaller whitish one appears on your table, to be washed down with a glass of water.
Another school of thought, this one dominated by chefs and people who know all about food, is that the answer is quite literally at our feet. Insects are certainly more plausible and certainly more practical than pills. Also, nutritionally speaking, insects, pound for pound, are a better protein source than red meat. Crickets in particular have more iron and calcium than beef. Combined with the fact that insects have no trans-fat or harmful cholesterol, these might just be the perfect health food.
So as I read the news on cockroach milk, dunking my fries into that faintly pink, cloyingly sweet, partly frozen beverage, I couldn’t help but wonder, about a future in which cows, sensing their power, will soon be demanding reservations and we’ll all be beholden to cockroaches for our lactose supply. But I dread to think how many cockroaches would it take exactly, to produce enough milk to make a large strawberry McShake.
Damian loves playing videogames. If all the bounties he collected slaying zombies were tangible, he wouldn't need to write such bios. Seriously though, Damian used to be a cook who wrote, now he's just a writer who cooks.