A case for, and against, including insects in a sustainable diet

Chris Tonnesen

The following is an edited excerpt from "On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes"  by Josh Evans, Roberto Flore, Michael Bom Frøst and Nordic Food Lab (Phaidon Press, 2017).

We are investigating insect gastronomy and the potential of insects in Nordic cuisine, but we should be clear that investigating is not the same as promoting. Certainly, there are many cases in which bringing insects into our kitchens doesn’t make sense — when it means importing large numbers of insects from halfway around the world, for example. Culinary knowledge, on the other hand, is transferable and fertile; this is why our fieldwork focuses on technique.

The recent surge of global interest in edible insects might make them seem like a panacea for world hunger and a slew of environmental problems. What is more likely is that no organism is inherently sustainable  no one species can create sustainable food systems, just as no single food can nourish and delight us for every meal of our lives.

There seems to be a similar narrative arising around insects that has arisen before around other foods. Consider soy products: a few decades ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, nutritionists and food activists alike seemed in broad agreement that soy was going to save the world. High in protein, cheap to produce, easily transportable and amenable to being processed into many products, soy seemed an obvious cornerstone of the imminent utopian food system. Moreover, as a traditional food in many cultures, soy brought with it ample and well-developed knowledge about how best to prepare and eat it.

Today, of course, what we see is far from what the first soy supporters supposed. More than 4 million hectares of forest in South America alone are destroyed each year for soy production, and at least 80 percent of this soy goes to cheap feed for industrially raised animals, the meat of which is then shipped around the world. Mass deforestation, paired with mass-produced, artificially cheap and bland meat, is not a food system at its most delicious or its most robust. And industrial soy, like industrial corn, is a far cry from the varieties grown and eaten in East Asia, which are processed and prepared to make it nourishing and delicious.

The same may well be happening with insects right now. One of our biggest fears, despite our best intentions and caution about the possible implications, is that our and others’ research will be used to reinforce the established industrial paradigm of monocultural mass production, instead of challenging and reconfiguring it. This pattern is already emerging with insects, and it is a path that rarely ends well  not for taste, not for ecological resilience and not for biocultural diversity.

One widely quoted FAO statistic says that the world population will increase to 9 billion by 2050, and that meeting this demand will require increasing food production by 70 percent. Yet this figure is mainly used to reinforce prior ideological commitments to modes of food production that are demonstrably destructive to the Earth and its systems, rather than opening up space for alternative ones.

Furthermore, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), on the other hand, states that there is already enough food on the planet to feed the global population. Increasing industrial mass production makes sense only if we intend to perpetuate the existing system of overabundant yet poor food, monstrous food waste and lack of food and accessibility, as well as the cycles of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. "Insects," in the discourse of global food security, seem more and more to be another swapping strategy — changing an input within a stagnant system. The input is trivial when the whole system is broken. 

Recipe: Spicy cricket and asparagus

(Serves 4)

Ingredients:

ASPARAGUS

80 g white asparagus

LACTOFERMENTED
PEA WATER

100 g whole fresh peas, washed
2 g salt

SPICY CRICKETS

50 g live house crickets (Acheta domestica)
500 g water
1 g salt
10 g mildly smoked chillies
1 g freeze-dried lime pulp or citric acid, to taste

SOUR KOMBUCHA BUTTER 

100 g fresh butter
6 g coriander seeds
120 g dry kombucha
0.2 g xanthan gum

TO FINISH

24 sea purslane leaves 

In May 2016, Afton Halloran and I traveled to Mexico. The sights, smells, colors and people of the markets of Mexico City were a warm welcome to a new place, leaving us with an everlasting impression of this vibrant nation. At the famous Mercado de San Juan a number of insect products from all over the country can be found. One of them is gusano de maguey (agave worms), a species of moth that has been consumed in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. In Mexico it is possible to eat gusano de maguey, for example, in mixiotes, tamales and salsas. Sal de gusano (agave worm salt) is a slightly smoky, savory condiment. Gusanos are harvested from the agave, dried and then crushed with chilli and sea salt. The salt is also delicious with a nice glass of mezcal. In fact, during Expo 2015 in Milano, Santiago Lastra, Afton and I snuck into the Mexico Pavilion, ate some amazing Mexican cuisine from different parts of the country and drank mezcal (with sal de gusano) in good company. Encapsulating these memories in the flavors and form of this dish is my way of thanking all of my friends from Mexico for opening their hearts and sharing their unique cultures.

Back at the Lab and inspired by the sal de gusano, I wanted to recreate this spicy salt and combine it with two delicious, seasonal ingredients: white asparagus from Lammefjord and peas from Saarupgård, an organic farm close to Copenhagen. In this dish, the spicy salt is used on asparagus, but it would also pair well with a shot of mezcal.

Directions:

ASPARAGUS

Using a vegetable peeler, peel the asparagus, then cut them into long strips, keeping the original shape. Set aside.

LACTOFERMENTED PEA WATER

Using a juicer or extractor, juice the peas, then weigh the quantity of the liquid and add the salt.Transfer to a vacuum bag, place in the vacuum machine and keep at 77°F until the liquid reaches pH 4.6 (this takes about four days). (Use litmus paper to test the pH.) In case the pH has not reached pH 4.6, keep fermenting until it does. Strain the pea water through fine filter paper into a bowl and store in the refrigerator until you need to use it for plating.

SPICY CRICKETS

Put the crickets in the blast chiller for about 30 minutes, or until frozen. Bring the water and salt to a boil in a pot. Add the crickets and blanch for 1 minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and place in a dry frying pan or skillet set over high heat and toast until lightly browned and dry. Put the crickets in the dehydrator set at 149°F overnight. The next day, put the dehydrated crickets with the remaining ingredients into a mortar and grind together using a pestle until it is a powder. Set aside.

SOUR KOMBUCHA BUTTER

Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and add the coriander seeds. Transfer to a vacuum bag, seal and place in the refrigerator to infuse overnight. The next day, bring the butter back to room temperature, then pass through a chinois into a bowl to eliminate the seeds. Add the dry kombucha to the butter, then, using a hand-held blender, blend to create an emulsion with a liquid consistency. Add the xanthan gum and blend for another 30 seconds, then spoon the kombucha butter into a steel bowl or heavy-duty plastic container that can be put into a vacuum machine and compress in the vacuum machine. Processing the kombucha in this way will remove all the air bubbles that were created when blending. Set aside.

TO FINISH

Lay a piece of baking parchment on the work surface, then arrange the asparagus side by side on top of the paper. Sprinkle the asparagus with the cricket powder, then place on the dish. Add dots of the kombucha butter around the asparagus, then carefully add the pea water without pouring it over the top of the asparagus. Add 6 sea purslane leaves on top of the asparagus in a decorative pattern.

NOTE

Many edible larvae are incorrectly called worms. Agave worms are actually the larval stage of the moth Comadia redtenbacheri.

—Recipe written by Roberto Flore

Tags: