Photo by: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / Biodiversity Heritage Library
Meat production - more specifically, industrial meat production - has a detrimental, long-reaching effect on the environment, and most experts agree that the worst effects are seen in climate change. Livestock farming contributes greatly to land and water degradation, acid rain, biodiversity loss, degeneration, and deforestation. To put a finer point on it, our food choices may very well be destroying the planet.
In order to mitigate the damage, environmentalists and culinary entrepreneurs alike continue to look for sustainable protein alternatives, and a surprising heir apparent to traditional meat consumption has emerged: insects. There are over 1,900 edible insect species and many are already consumed in countries in Central America, Asia, and Africa, but convincing people in other parts of the world to add bugs to their dinner plates presents an entirely different challenge - one that might be overcome if people realised how delicious insects can be.
It should be noted that cooking with and eating insects often has nothing to do with food scarcity, or a dearth of edible options. Neither does it mean that a society is ‘primitive’. Globally, insects are being served up as street snacks or landing on the lauded tables of the finest dining establishments. A culinary crawl around the world reveals some of the most interesting insect delicacies ever to grace a plate (or skewer).
In the state of Oaxaca - a place put on the global culinary map thanks to its signature mozzarella-like cheese - miniature grasshoppers are deep-fried and stuffed into corn tortillas. Chapulines, as the crunchy critters are called, are a staple in southern Mexican cuisine, and are often served with a dusting of chile and lime. As a garnish or a main, they offer a zippy bite. Some liken the flavour to malt vinegar, while others claim their smokiness is akin to bacon.
Food stalls and open-air snacks abound on the streets of Thailand, and crickets in all different iterations are a common sight. They are sometimes served raw or baked, but are traditionally sold as the fried snack known as jing leed. Street vendors flash-fry the little leapers in a large wok and season them with Thai pepper powder and Golden Mountain sauce (a distant cousin of soy sauce made from fermented soybeans, salt, and sugar). The deep-fried comfort snack is best enjoyed with an ice-cold beer.
Eating insects is a centuries-old practice in China and one that shows no signs of abating. What makes the country’s tradition of consuming insects unique is that many multi-legged delicacies are served live. In street markets, squirming scorpions (which are, technically, arachnids not insects) are skewered and seasoned generously before being plunged into hot oil. In finer restaurants, live scorpions are bathed in a white wine sauce before being fried, imparting a bit of sweetness while still maintaining the crunchiness diners crave.
Mopane worm - Zimbabwe
Mopane Worm / iStock
The mopane worm is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat. A caterpillar that is found mainly on the mopane tree for which it is named, the plump crawler is a familiar treat in both rural and urban eastern Africa. The worms are a popular option owing to the fact that they can be cooked in a variety of ways. In their customary preparation, the worms’ verdant entrails are squeezed out and the remaining husks are flattened and laid out in the sun to dry. After their drying, the worms’ subsequent use is really dependent on the whims of whoever is preparing them - they can be eaten as a sort of chip, or smoked, ground up, and added to sauces. Most commonly, they are used as a meat substitute in rich, hearty soups and stews.
Given their diminutive size, ants are a wise ‘introductory insect’ for the uninitiated. They can be tucked into a host of dishes without the slightest detection and, in Brazil, ants are often incorporated into toppings, snacks, and gourmet dishes. They’re so abundant, it may be difficult to find a menu on which they don’t appear. The tiny insects are at their best when they are served deep-fried or sautéed. In Silveiras, a tiny municipality in São Paulo, clusters of ants are cooked and covered in chocolate, making for a crispy ending to any meal.
Termites - Kenya
Termite / iStock
The destructive termite has earned a well-deserved reputation as a nuisance insect, but Kenyans have long known of their flavourful, earthy taste. Harvested from wood frequently used in the building of homes, termites are gathered and sold by the pound by industrious (and, perhaps, frustrated) homeowners. The insects are becoming increasingly harder to source and their scarcity has given rise to an almost fervent demand for them - and people are willing to pay a dear price. Roasted with spices over a fire, or used to thicken ugali (a cornmeal porridge), they have been used as a protein and mineral source for years. Babies are often fed a mush of ground-up termites as a nutritional supplement.
Fly eggs - Mexico
Insects as an alternative to meat is widely considered to be a sustainable practice, but ahuatle is in danger of vanishing forever. The fly eggs, found on plants that grow in bodies of water in Central America, are the latest victim of water pollution. They are harvested and dried in the sun before being folded into egg dishes, or in spicy, hot pepper-laden pies, or served with zucchini and other squashes.
Witchetty grub - Australia
Witchetty grubs / iStock
An Aboriginal bush favourite, the appropriately named larvae casts a sort of deceptive sorcery. In its raw form it looks like a caterpillar, but amazingly tastes like an almond; when it’s cooked, its skin crisps up and tastes like a Sunday roast chicken. After a good roasting, the grub performs another feat as its insides turn an egg yolk yellow (the versatility!). Eating a witchetty grub live and raw is a delight - unless eaten head first. Biting the head of the live grub puts an overzealous eater in danger of being eaten from the inside as the vengeful worm has been known to bite back on the way down the alimentary canal.
A big appetite and a lot of courage (of the liquid kind, maybe) are needed to tackle this gargantuan Cambodian delicacy known as ‘a-ping’. The hirsute, palm-sized spider is usually the stuff of nightmares, but in the tiny village of Skuon, vendors offer piles of the oversized arachnids in open-air food stalls. They are bred underground before they make it to market, where they are fried with garlic, salt, sugar, and a host of spices, and roasted until their rotund bodies turn crimson red. To conquer this beast that’s more of a meal than a snack, start by eating one leg at a time and saving the body for last.
Black Ant Larvae - Mexico
Black Ant Lavae / iStock
Making a meal of insects dates back to the days of the Aztecs. Escamoles, better known as ‘insect caviar’, are the eggs of the black-ant and they are harvested from underground nests attached to the roots of the maguey and agave plants. Once they are coaxed from their hidden lairs, they are often boiled and added to creamy soups, or fried and served alongside tortillas and guacamole. Lovers of the pearl-like eggs compare their texture to creamy cottage cheese.
If you’re willing to forgo traditional meat and embrace some new tastes and textures on the plate and palate, trying some of the world’s most exotic delicacies may be just the adventure you seek.
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