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Discomfort food

They may not be to everyone's tastes - yet - but insects and other creepy crawlies offer eco-friendly solutions to many of the world's dietary problems, writes Julian Ryall

 

The delicate, translucent wings keep getting stuck between my teeth but the legs and antennae are easier to get down. They don't quite melt in the mouth, but having them baked into a biscuit takes the edge off the fact that I am eating bees.

The bulbous bodies - with their familiar black-and-yellow stripes - are a different matter, and I chew them up quickly and swallow them.

Shoichi Uchiyama sits across the table and smiles as he nibbles delicately on his own biscuit, which similarly contains about a dozen bees, savouring the roasted aroma and the texture on his tongue.

To Uchiyama, bees represent a pleasant mid-afternoon snack to be washed down with a mug of green tea. To me, they are insects that have no place on a menu.

My dining companion looks at me as if I don't know what I'm missing.

"Of all the insects that I have eaten, I would have to say my favourite was the witchetty grub that the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and some of the Pacific islands eat," 62-year-old Uchiyama says. He describes the plump, white, wood-eating larvae of a number of species of moth as being soft and juicy, and with a creamy texture on the tongue that reminds him of a cut of top-quality tuna.

Uchiyama, by profession the manager of a printing company based in the western suburbs of Tokyo, is a firm believer in the enormous benefits to mankind of consuming insects - he is an entomophagist, to use the technical term - if only the more squeamish of us could overcome our reservations. He has also written two books. The first, published in 2008, is titled Interesting Insect Food and is a selection of his own recipes using bugs from all over the world. The second, An Introduction to Eating Insects, was released last year and is a more scholarly examination of the benefits of consuming creepy crawlies. His aim now, he says, is to have the two books printed as one and translated into English so that he can reach a wider audience.

Uchiyama can trace his interest in insect cuisine back to his childhood, in Nagano prefecture, where corner stores would sell bags of grasshoppers that had been cooked in sake, soy sauce and sugar, and the larvae of silk worms. However, it was not until he attended an event about the consumption of insects in other cultures, at Tokyo's Tama Zoo, about 12 years ago, that he really caught the bug, as it were.

"I was with some friends and we all thought it was very interesting," he says. "There were lots of insects from Africa, South America and Southeast Asia that people there eat and we thought we should give it a try.

"So we went down to the banks of the River Tama and caught some grasshoppers. I wasn't sure what to expect but after we had cooked them they were wonderful. It was surprising how good they were; they were fresh and juicy and that really opened my eyes."

The grasshopper, like many insects, is very high in protein and low in fat, Uchiyama says. Bees provide balanced amino acids and essential carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins are present in significant amounts in many insects. And that's on top of the fibre, copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and selenium their little bodies contain.

Experts with impressive letters before and after their names also believe there is something to be said for imbibing insects, with Frank Franklin, director of paediatric nutrition at the University of Alabama, in the United States, arguing that insect protein formulated into a ready-to-use therapeutic food could help solve the problem of malnutrition, the cause of death for about five million children around the world every year.

A company called All Things Bugs, which aims to develop eco-friendly ways to use insects to improve food security and health, last year won an award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a research project titled, "Good Bugs: Sustainable Food for Malnutrition in Children".

As well as the health benefits, the experts point out, insects are small, meaning they require far less space and expense to be reared than the foodstuffs we more commonly find on our plates. In addition, insects breed far faster than traditional livestock and they consume the things that humans dispose of, including animal slurry, compost and human and food waste.

According to a recent BBC documentary, Can Eating Insects Save the World?, that is being shown on TVB Pearl this week, there are already 40 tonnes of insects to every human.

Although Uchiyama may have problems convincing people raised on a meat-and-two-veg diet to switch to something they might find crawling through a hedge, there are - and have been - plenty of societies in which bugs are considered a delicacy.

Experts believe insects formed an important part of the diets of our ancient ancestors, with evidence from waste pits suggesting cave-dwellers in what is now Mexico and the southern states of the US consumed ants, beetle larva and lice. Silkworm cocoons found in the ruins of towns in Shanxi province dating back to 2,500BC suggest the pupae had been eaten by humans.

There are as many as 10 million species of insect and more than 1,900 of them are consumed by the two billion of us who already eat bugs as part of our diet. The Chinese, Uchiyama points out, are partial to scorpions, water bugs are popular in Thailand and huge spiders - although not technically insects, still most definitely creepy crawlies - are considered a delicacy in parts of Africa and South America.

The people of Mexico snack on " chapulin", grasshoppers that have been toasted with garlic, lime juice and salt. In parts of southern Africa, the mopane worm, the caterpillar of the Gonimbrasia belina moth, is a favourite and termites have been feeding people around the planet for centuries.

Hong Kong has seen a few insect restaurants come and go - such as the Wo Mei, in Cheung Sha Wan, which served bamboo worms, scorpions and water roaches, and the People of Yunnan, in San Po Kong, with its silkworms, caterpillars and cicadas - but the city has had nothing to rival the purveyors of all things wriggly commonly found on the streets of Bangkok.

"I was in Vietnam and Laos in 2009, studying the impact of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, and some local people took us to dinner one evening," says Yuki Takamatsu, who is preparing to begin a PhD in Thailand specifically looking at the potential of insects as a food source for humans. "The first one I tried was fried crickets and I was really surprised because they were very good," she says. "It tasted like a good shrimp."

Takamatsu says her father can recall eating locusts and silkworms in Japan as a boy - and that he laments the loss of that part of Japanese food culture. Takamatsu believes it is up to her to reintroduce the concept of bugs as food to her countrymen.

"This really is a big part of our culture but we have forgotten it," she says. "And we must remember that it is a healthy food source and would help to protect our national food security."

Takamatsu is a founding member of the Edible Insect Science Meeting group, which meets regularly in Japan to share recipes, ideas and proposals that will advance their agenda. Set up in 2011, the group's website states its aims are "to share the knowledge of edible insects and understand this deeply through discussion".

"I hope we can get the message across, but it will be very difficult," she admits. "When my parents were growing up, the Japanese economy was good and they enjoyed eating European food, so even though they understand that Japan had an edible-insect culture in the past, they got used to eating that sort of cuisine.

"We need to talk about these things. That will not happen if young people won't touch or even look at insects. The first step will be to get people to accept insects as a food source, but that will take time."

The lonely campaigns waged by Uchiyama and Takamatsu, as well as a small international fellowship of confirmed insect aficionados, received a huge boost recently from a 200-page report issued by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Unveiled on May 13 at the organisation's Rome headquarters, the study calls on food writers, celebrity chefs and restaurants to encourage people to consume insects, specifically to combat world hunger and global warming.

"Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly," the report says, adding that they leave a "low environment footprint" because they are able to convert 2kg of feed into 1kg of edible insect mass. Cattle, on the other hand, require 8kg of feed to produce 1kg of meat.

In common with other proponents' claims, the study says insects can provide protein and nutrients of a similar quality to those of meat and fish and "are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children".

The report points out that most insects that are consumed by humans are gathered by people hunting to meet their own needs. The UN suggests it is time to introduce mechanisation to step up the farming of insects.

Artists and designers are getting in on the edible-insect concept, too, with the Wellcome Collection, in London, having just staged the Insects au Gratin installation. The event, which ran for 13 days, was designed to focus on the future of food and to demonstrate the potential of insects, pointing out that just four grasshoppers contain the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk and that dung beetles, by weight, contain more protein than beef. Designers, food scientists and engineers had been set the challenge of creating new food aesthetics and lines of insect products.

Selling the concept of insects as food is the key to what Uchiyama and Takamatsu are aiming to achieve. After all, our forefathers might have struggled to get their culinary heads around the idea of boil-in-the-bag meals, microwave popcorn and freeze-dried dinners.

With summer coming to Japan, Uchiyama is cooking up a few new recipes featuring one of his favourite insects, the succulent cicada, which, he believes, is at its best in late July. And after that, autumn is the peak time for spiders, which should be served gently boiled on a bed of rice. The meat is soft and reminiscent of simmered soya beans, he says.

Uchiyama is proud to say he has never been so scared of an insect that he couldn't force himself eat it - but he's only tried stag beetles once, because they tasted of mulch.

"It must be because all they eat is rotten leaves," he says.

Before we say our farewells, Uchiyama has one more delicacy that he insists I try. He unpacks a small plastic box to reveal a dozen or so white weevils clambering over each other.

The fat zomushi - which are often found bored into acorns - wriggles on my tongue before finding its feet and starting to explore. I work it between my teeth and pop it with the slightest pressure. It has no taste and I quickly wash the creature's remains down with a mouthful of green tea.

Several days later, however, I'm still trying to get over the mental hurdle of what I put in my mouth.

 

Can Eating Insects Save the World? airs at 9pm on Thursday, on TVB Pearl.

 

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