Daniella Martin isn't your average cook. Like many people today, she is interested in eating healthy, low-cost, as-cruelty-free-as-possible foods, but she is not vegan. Daniella is an entomorphagist --a person who eats bugs. Her new book, Edible: an Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, presents some fascinating food for thought as well as food for your plate.
She began to explore entomorphagy as a college student in Mexico: "I was traveling on a student visa, studying pre-Columbian* food and medicine for my BA in cultural anthropology", she explains in her introduction. "I'd read about entomorphagy--insect eating--in college, how the Aztecs and Maya ate everything that was available to them, including insects, rodents and reptiles." She ended up trying chapulines: roasted grasshoppers, and noted that they didn't taste bad at all. The flavor was like "a shriveled, spicy, slightly burned potato chip".
Martin also noticed that as she was eating, local children would come up to her and help themselves from her plate. They'd apparently watched enough tourists to know that the average foreigner might eat one bug to satisfy his curiosity, but he's likely to throw the rest away. The kids ate the roasted grasshoppers with gusto, leaving Martin bemused.
Then, in 2008, she read an article in a magazine about edible insects. International organizations such as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization were looking at edible bugs as "an eco-friendly alternative to beef and other livestock" and "a potential solution to world hunger." Fascinated, Martin ordered a few insect cookbooks and decided to give creepy-crawly consumption another try. After a meal of tacos made from sautéed wax worm larvae, she was hooked.
Martin says that anyone interested in healthy eating ought to give bugs a try. Many of them are packed with minerals as well as protein, and they even taste good! The wax worms she started with "smelled for all the world, just like mushrooms." Their flavor was "savory...Also buttery and nutty, with a hint of the mushroom I'd been smelling--like long, slender Japanese enoki mushrooms, to be exact."
Most importantly of all, says Martin, bugs are in plentiful supply worldwide. True, you have to be careful (Martin's book comes with a disclaimer that says you should check with a doctor before you start chowing down on beetles and crickets.) Some are venomous and there is the potential for contamination from pesticides and from the foods that some bugs live on. Think cockroaches and flies. There can also be problems with allergies; people who are allergic to shellfish may react badly to certain kinds of bugs. However, compared to beef, pork, chicken and fish, the carbon footprint for bug consumption is tiny. Bugs require much less space to live in; their food is cheaper, because many edible insects can be found in other food crops such as corn and tomatoes and they require much less processing, so fewer toxic by-products get into our water and soil. At the same time, they offer the same or even better nutritional benefits then the animals we usually eat.
Of course, the kicker is getting the average American or European to try crawly cuisine. Bugs are often a staple in parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, but most Westerners find the idea repulsive. We tend to think of bugs as dirty, filthy pests and it's true that some bugs eat decaying flesh or walk around in places that are distinctly unsanitary. But, says Martin, we need to remember that by and large, most bugs are plant eaters. Wax worms, for example, are the larval form of the wax moth and they are born and live in beehives, feeding on the wax left behind in the combs. Corn earworms are born inside a corn ear and never live anywhere else until they mature. When you eat them, you’re simply getting your corn plus a shot of protein and minerals. Aphids, those little leaf-munching forces of chaos, “have a better diet than most vegans. All they do is suck kale blood. Basically, they’re on a constant green-juice cleanse. They turn this kale blood into animal tissue making them, in reality, little hyperconcentrated [sic] kale nuggets”, Martin comments, “They say you are what you eat. But aren’t you also what you eat eats? Does the fact that a middleman sports an exoskeleton really matter?”
Martin isn’t alone in her enthusiasm. In her travels through the world of entomorphagy she met people who own food carts specializing in buggy treats and people who operate restaurants featuring insect dishes. Noma, a high-end restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, specializes in native Nordic cuisine and includes bugs regularly on their menu. “It’s about what is available locally, seasonally, and, generally, in abundance—the here and now of nutrient sources”. Those nutrient sources include insects.
Noma also boasts a lab/test kitchen called the Nordic Food Lab, or NFL. It was established by Noma’s chef Rene Redzepi and is dedicated to “searching and stretching the boundaries of edibility…trying to find the most delicious ways of presenting ingredients viewed as non-edible to the public.” When Martin visited Noma and the NFL, she found that the chefs and students there were taking the very sensible line that the way to get people to entertain the idea of eating bugs was to make the bugs a yummy addition to more familiar foods. “To convince Europe to eat insects”, one researcher said “it’s not enough to fry them up or to extract the protein. I think we have to lower the barriers for first-time entomorphagists. If you just hand someone a cricket, and say, “Eat it!” I think there’s a ninety-nine percent chance of rejection. But if you give them something that’s really delicious, that’s in a familiar setting, I think we can lower the outright rejection rate a lot.” A check of the menu on Noma’s website, still up and running even though the restaurant itself is closed for the summer, reveals a dish of beef tartar and ants.
Edible is a delightfully readable book, with something to quote on nearly every page. Daniella Martin makes a strong case for entomorphagy in a direct, chatty style that’s more like talking to a friend over coffee than reading a research tome. And while there is a slight tinge of that complacency that Californians tend to affect because they’re on the leading edge of every new trend in America, she never talks down to or harangues her readers. The book includes an index of edible bugs at the back, plus several of Martin’s own recipes, such as Salty Sweet Wax Worms and Sweet-n-Spicy Summer June Bugs. Even if the very idea of eating bugs makes you queasy, Edible is a book that may actually make you change your mind…for a few seconds at least!
Sources: Martin, Daniella. (2014) Edible: an adventure into the world of eating insects and the last great hope to save the planet. Boston: New Harvest, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Noma Website: http://noma.dk