Lovely grub, say Hong Kong’s insect eaters: delicious, nutritious and good for the planet

Watch: eating bugs is common everywhere except the developed world, where some people still feel a little queasy at the mere idea. But its advocates say it’s a green solution to the world’s protein needs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 5:58pm

“It tastes like calamari,” says four-year-old Oliver Engelhorn, popping a bee pupa into his mouth, and chewing happily before reaching for another of the golden cocoons stacked high on a plate in front of him.

It’s 7pm on a Thursday and the People of Yunnan Restaurant in San Po Kong is buzzing with guests, many of them regulars. The eatery blends seamlessly into a quiet street in the industrialised district of New Kowloon, but what makes it stand out from the crowd is what’s on the menu – an array of creepy-crawlies including silkworm, bee and cicada pupae, wasp larvae, bamboo worms and grasshoppers.

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Insects are a traditional food source in Yunnan, a province in southwestern China with the largest number of ethnic minority groups in the country, making its cuisine a rich cultural mix of flavours – mostly spicy, with mushrooms included in many dishes.

Restaurant owner Amy Wong Ling says it was her husband’s idea to serve insects when the couple moved to Hong Kong from Yunnan.

“My husband had the idea of introducing Yunnan insects to Hong Kong – they were not available on city menus back then. It’s a bit of a gimmick,” says Wong, placing a plate of crunchy grasshoppers on the table.

The bee pupae tastes sweet – like a fried doughnut – while grasshoppers, with their spindly legs, are crunchy in texture, the body tasting like an overfried chip.

While entomophagy – the human consumption of insects – might be hard to swallow for some, the practice has existed for tens of thousands of years. About 1,900 species of insects are known to be eaten by around two billion people.

Commonly eaten creepy-crawlies and where you can sample them

And for good reason. Packed with protein, insects are also a good source of fibre, good fats and minerals, points highlighted in a 2013 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation that promotes insect eating as a promising way to feed the nine billion people expected to be on earth in 2050.

It stated that raising and harvesting insects requires less land and water than raising cows, pigs and sheep. Insects also emit fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock.

But eating insects is rare in the developed world, with one of the biggest barriers being the “yuck” factor.

Hong Kong-based functional medicine practitioner Miles Price wants to change that.

“Eating insects takes a lot of pressure off the planet by being a more eco-friendly source of protein than beef, lamb or chicken,” says Price, who works at Central’s Life Clinic. “But convincing people is the hardest part. Insects are scavengers, bottom feeders, so they have an image problem and breaking down the psychological barriers – removing the yuck factor – needs to happen.”

Wong agrees: “People think insects are disgusting and scary but once guests try them they find them crunchy and tasty.”

Price says more research needs to be done on the safety and purity of insects, and called on governments worldwide – Hong Kong included – to introduce proper certification of insects in the same way organic certification is done for other sources of animal protein.

“It needs legitimate certification, but I think there’s still a long way to go – at least five to 10 years before I see any real developments on this.”

Wong, who has run the restaurant for seven years, says eating insects as a young girl was a means of survival. “We were poor and didn’t have a lot of food when we were young. We used to eat bee pupae or grasshoppers as snack food, which were offered by ethnic minority people to treat guests, because minorities welcome guests with wine, meat and these special small insects. They were deep fried to make them crunch and more tasty.

“In recent years people have become aware of the benefits of eating insects. Studies show that each kind of insect offers unique nutritious value and they contain no cholesterol but high protein.”

In the kitchen the sound of frying can be heard.

“We follow the traditional Yunnan way of cooking: deep fry with pepper and salt. This way it’s easier to eat,” says Wong. “We import insects in cold storage from Yunnan. When we receive orders, we defrost and wash the insect and usually deep fry it before adding some pepper and salt. It’s rather simple.”

Customers can also buy uncooked insects from the restaurant and Oliver’s parents, Danielle Stutterd and Philipp Engelhorn, plan to stock up on some bugs for Oliver’s insect-themed birthday party in August, where guests will be asked to dress up as their favourite insect. Chocolate cakes and fairy bread will be replaced with insect dishes.

“I greatly believe in the benefits of eating insects and the benefits it can have on the planet, so introducing the concept to a birthday party, to a younger generation, seemed like the ideal time to get a conversation going. So yes, we are going ahead with the conversion of the village,” says Stutterd, referring to Shek O, which she calls home.

As for Wong’s bugs of choice? “I like bee pupas, grasshoppers and bamboo worms but my husband prefers silkworm pupas for the thicker and smoother taste, while I like crunchier things. Different people have different tastes.”

Price says sweet-coating insects and other bugs is one way to make them more appealing to the Western palate.

“In Mexico I ate a scorpion covered in chocolate. It had a nutty flavour. Covering insects in chocolate to ‘soften’ the whole experience is one way to help convince people to eat them.”