Fancy a quivering shrimp covered with ants?
How about cricket crepes with bamboo worm fudge ice cream, or if you’re looking for a little more sting, scorpion scaloppine?
The next big food trend isn’t growing in your garden, but you could find it crawling around in there.
It might be hard for some of us to swallow, but creepy crawlies including crickets, grasshoppers, silkworm, scorpions, bamboo worms, wasp larvae and ants are becoming the future of food.
Entomophagy – the human consumption of insects – has existed for tens of thousands of years. About 1,900 species of insects are known to be eaten by around two billion people around the world.
However, converting Western consumers to the joys of munching on bugs as more than an exotic treat remains a hard sell.
Eating insects is growing in popularity and there has been a rise in the number of restaurants around the world serving insects in strange and creative ways.
But are they just a trendy add-on in fancy eateries, or are they the solution to feeding the planet's mushrooming population?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation at the United Nations:
Insects as food and feed emerge as an especially relevant issue in the twenty-first century due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes.
In a 2013 report, the UN said by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people, meaning current food production will need to almost double.
To meet the food and nutrition challenges, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced.
In a nutshell, we need to find new ways of growing food.
Cue insect eating.
According to the UN there are three main reasons bugs should be coming soon to a dinner plate near you:
Health: Insects are healthy and nutritious alternatives to everyday meats like chicken, beef, pork and fish. Also, many are rich in protein and good fats as well as packed with iron, calcium and zinc.
Environmental: Insects emit less greenhouse gases than most livestock, and insect rearing doesn’t require land to be cleared to expand production.
Livelihoods: Harvesting/rearing of insects (or ‘mini-livestock’) is a low-tech, low-capital investment option which offers job opportunities to even the poorest sections of society.
Eating insects is common in many countries around the world.
No one in Thailand would bat an eyelid at munching on a cricket as a snack, or slurping on silkworms in China or gobbling grasshoppers in Mexico.
However, according to the UN, in most Western countries the eating of things which have been crawling on the ground or in your garden is viewed with disgust and associated with primitive behaviour.
But change is in the air.
Restaurants jump on the trend
The internationally-renowned restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, often named as the world’s best restaurant, is helping to promote the insect-eating trend.
Using ants is old hat for Noma, which has served them at its flagship restaurant with beef tartar, among other dishes. And at a pop-up restaurant in Tokyo, Noma's chef and co-owner, René Redzepi, created a much vaunted opening course: jumbo shrimp so fresh it was still twitching with life, served with a smattering of black ants as garnish.
In 2008, Redzepi co-founded the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit foundation for culinary research. One of the lab's main activities is exploring the gastronomic qualities of insects.
With the rise of culinary research institutes such as Nordic Food Lab and top restaurants like Noma using insects, the hospitality industry is increasingly jumping on the bandwagon.
For example, late last year Britain opened its first insect restaurant, Grub Kitchen in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. Its tagline? “Turning eating insects from novelty to normalcy."
The menu features the restaurant’s signature bug burger packed with mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers, as well as an intriguing-sounding bamboo worm pad Thai curry.
For sweet tooths, desserts include cricket crepes accompanied by bamboo worm fudge ice cream, and treacle tart with a side of bug brittle.
What about the taste?
Insects can taste nutty to mushroomy and fishy, from crunchy to gooey and meaty.
For example, mealworms taste nutty and light with a crunchy texture, while giant waterbugs taste similar to a sweet scallop with hints of anise in the head.
Crickets taste and feel a lot like a potato chip, while cicadas are like asparagus or potato.
Ants can taste lemony, vinegary or like sweet-and-sour. Tarantulas are crab-like and nutty, and scorpions are similar to soft-shell crab or shrimp in its shell.
The novelty factor
While they are appearing on our menus more often, the West is still stuck on viewing insects as a novelty and exotic food, according to the UN.
In recent years in Europe and the US, several kinds of insect have appeared on shelves including silkworm pupae and canned ants, fried grasshoppers and maguey caterpillars.
The UN report says white agave caterpillars are being exported to Canada and the US. Each can contains only five or six larvae and sell for a whopping US$50 per kg.
In the UK, famous luxury store Harrods and Selfridges sells fancy insect products like chocolate covered ants and worm crisps, while chocolates dipped in gold paint and topped with crickets are for sale in Brussels.
The UN is seeking “tailored strategies” that address the West’s “yuck factor” and break down common myths surrounding entomophagy.
It has vowed to target governments, ministries of agriculture and knowledge institutions in developed countries to stop insects being viewed as a pest instead of a protein.
While you might be able to buy a gourmet bug burger in a fancy restaurant for £9.50, in the West we’re still a long way off from picking up a kilo of silkworm from the local supermarket.
However, the UN is optimistic that will change:
“Feelings of disgust in the West towards entomophagy contributes to the common misconception that entomophagy in the developing world is prompted by starvation and is merely a survival mechanism. This is far from the truth. Although it will require considerable convincing to reverse this mentality, it is not an impossible feat.”
Have you ever eaten insects? Would you be happy to try them or does the idea make your stomach turn? Tell us about your experience or thoughts in the comments section below. If you enjoyed this article, please share via the share buttons below.