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I must admit, insects are far from the first food I imagine to be ‘fine dining’. Instead, I picture a site freakish to western eyes: a market stall in Thailand or China full to the brim with crickets, cicada, worms, locusts, cockroaches and more, often displayed proudly next to scorpions and tarantulas. And while I’m all for dipping my toes into foreign experiences whilst abroad, it is less appealing at home. But despite my reservations, I decided to get in the game and went along to London’s esteemed Natural History Museum, for a lively debate about the future of food. What surprised me were the guests, a famous chef and a world renowned scientist all there to discuss about ‘Edible insects’: how could I miss it?
«The most normal reaction is, ‘ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod... Mmm, they’re actually quite nice,’» says Daniel Creedon, head chef at London’s Archipelago restaurant, invited to the event together with Stuart Hine, an entomologist at the museum. One of the few exotic restaurants in London, Archipelago’s menu includes crocodile, kangaroo and zebra. But Daniel’s most popular dish is the love bug salad, pan fried locusts and crickets in chili and garlic. «About half of our customers order something with insects and the vast majority of them do end up eating it.» But Daniel acknowledges that there is a psychological barrier to overcome.
«Insects are a good carrier of flavour,» Daniel explains. His rare specialisation was learned on the job and is a marked departure from his training in classical French cuisine with Albert Roux Co. «They can’t be marinated because of the exoskeleton.» Instead, insects are first dehydrated so that they don’t burst when eaten. Wings, which can get stuck in the throat, are removed from locusts and crickets, which are then fried in intense heat to remove pathogens, and seasoned.
«The ethos of the restaurant is to expand people’s horizons,» Daniel said, but I was still sceptical that us Brits, who are generally unadventurous eaters, would take to food more readily seen as pests and swatted away. «I think there’s large areas that would happily eat insects,» he reckons, especially for those, like himself, who follow a Paleolithic diet. «There’s no snack food. You’ve got crisps, you’ve got nuts, you’ve got all these foods that we can’t eat. So there are people who say ‘just do some barbecued locusts and I’ll buy them by the truckload.’»
As our conversation drew to a close, punters nervously made their way into the sterile museum restaurant, scanning the scene to make sure that there were other volunteers. Buoyed by Daniel’s enthusiasm, I took my seat with three science journalists quietly confident. The restaurant was dotted by excited faces but there was an obvious air of anxiety. In front of me a young Spanish gentleman buried his head in his hands; eating silkworm pupae was clearly not his idea of a good Friday night.
My confidence slumped somewhat when our first dish arrived. The event was geared towards a serious discussion as to whether insects were a viable alternative to diminishing stocks of traditional food. This wasn’t fine dining. And the point was clear. Atop a paper plate lay four larvae of mealworm beetles and four mole crickets, dehydrated, fried but unseasoned. Daniel had made the love bug salad sound mouthwatering, a far cry from what was in front of me.
«OK, who’s with me?» asked one of the journalists, holding aloft a worm larvae. I grabbed a sample and we counted down. «3... 2... 1...» Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod? Well, it really wasn’t that bad. There’s a strange sensation when you first chew as the worm larvae disintegrates. It was dry and bitter but not unpleasant.
The first hurdle cleared, we moved on to the mole crickets. Their appearance, minus wings but with legs and head intact, was certainly off-putting. Look away as you put it in your mouth and all that’s left is to wrestle your mind as it tries to equate what you’re chewing with a visual composition. This time the adjectives offered were more descriptive: smoky, dusty, damp, like rotten wood. All negative and all accurate, but the cricket had a distinctive, gamey taste to which a western palette would easily adapt.
A small side salad on the next paper plate was either an accompaniment or an illustration of the natural habitat of the main dish. Weaver ants left little impression, all legs and antennae with a mild flavour from the abdomen. Bamboo worms looked fairly appealing, a consistent off-white with no legs or otherwise poking out, but the salty taste soon gave way to an aggressive waft of bitter stilton. One punter described the flavour as that of «a cheesy Wotsit from down the back of the sofa.»
The giant cricket – which, at a little over an inch, struggled to live up to its name – lacked the negative connotations of the mole cricket. Crunchy and surprisingly sturdy, the same gamey flavour grew stronger as I chewed. They are considered a delicacy in south east Asia and I could understand why. They were certainly preferable to the silkworm pupae whose earthy bitterness left a strong and unpleasant aftertaste, an unfortunate way to end our tasting session.
So, what did I think? Well, the anxiety in the room had given way to a lively sense of accomplishment; we had all tried something new and were all pleasantly surprised. I am still unconvinced that large numbers of westerners will take to eating insects regularly. But I am almost certain that with a clove of garlic here and a dash of chili powder there, the crickets at least would make a unique and tasty dish. Now the task of convincing people to try them begins...