Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, has been advocated for reasons ranging from their potential role in food security to their nutritional and environmental benefits. The always innovative Nordic Food Lab thinks our taste buds may benefit from them, too.
“I would say from the point of view of taste, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be including them in our cuisine,” says Josh Evans, Lead Researcher and Project Manager at the Nordic Food Lab, the culinary research institute known for its usage of unconventional foods. They’ve approached entomophagy primarily from a gastronomic perspective, finding that grubs can make some quite tasty grub. “From Nordic Food Lab’s point of view, the first and foremost reason to eat insects has to do with deliciousness.” He adds, “This is the attitude we have for everything we work with--all of the neglected and underutilized edible resources that exist, whether it’s insects, lichens, algae or anything else.”
Established in 2008, the Nordic Food Lab was founded by René Redzepi, chef patron of Noma and a man who knows a thing or two about transforming perceptions surrounding the palatability of a food. The idea of adding insects to the Nordic Food Lab’s already eclectic plate came in the summer of 2011 during the MAD Symposium, the annual food conference created by Redzepi. Alex Atala, the renowned Brazilian chef known for his emphasis on indigenous ingredients, was presenting on insects and brought along some samples of ants from the Amazon. Redzepi was wowed by them and he wondered why he wasn’t serving them in his own restaurant.
Getting back to this deliciousness, the team--which consists of an evolving roster of chefs, researchers, chemists and anthropologists from around the world--dissect different flavors and collaborate on ways to make products and dishes.
The team has used a variety of different insects, including locusts, ants, crickets and moths. Lately, they’ve been experimenting with bee larva since they are in season during summer in Denmark. They’ve used this versatile ingredient in the past, using it in everything from soup to beer, even making a version of ceviche, the dish popular throughout Latin America traditionally made with acid cured seafood.
The larvae also have a sweet side that can be enhanced; it can be blended with honey to substitute sugar and oil in granola. They have also used them as a base for fermenting with a yogurt starter, which can be an easier first step for those curious about the taste of bee larva but aren’t quite ready to try it as ceviche.
The Nordic Food Lab has visited seven countries on five continents where entomophagy is practiced to learn more about traditional methods of preparation. Rather than importing an insect they’ve sampled, they seek edible equivalents that can be found in Denmark, such as members of the same genus or family that are prevalent in the region. Although they’re driven by deliciousness, they also emphasize sustainability. “We’re interested in sustainability in a more systemic way by focusing on how insects may fit into larger food systems,” Evans says.
Sustainability, though, depends on several factors and Evans is wary of proclaiming insects as the next potential protein panacea. Citing soy farming in the Amazon as an example of issues of promoting a food as such, he says, “Sustainability isn’t a property of an organism, it’s a property of how an organism works in a food system.” Like insects, soy was seen as a cost efficient protein for both humans and animals. Although it may be improving now, during the last half of the twentieth century increased demand for soy and insufficient planning has led to deforestation throughout Brazilian rainforests.
A recent soy project in Afghanistan underscores the importance of taste and also illustrates another challenge insect fare faces--how to introduce a food in regions where there is no cultural tradition of eating them. Started in 2010, the $34 million US funded effort was designed to increase protein levels in Afghan diets and make soy a staple crop within the country. According to interviews and government documents obtained by The Center for Public Integrity, the initiative has been viewed as unsuccessful by many. This conclusion was reached due to many factors, including Afghans’ apparent dislike for the taste of soy.
Still, there are success stories of non-native foods becoming popular outside the countries where they are traditionally eaten. Many entomophagy advocates point out sushi’s success story; it was initially shunned in the United States, a country that had no culture of eating raw fish.
Those feeling pestimistic about the culinary future of insects could consider the lobster’s rags to riches story. Parallels have been drawn between the two, since insects are often perceived to be a poor man’s food. At one time, the same was true of lobster. In colonial New England, indentured servants stipulated in their contracts that they would not have to eat it more than three times a week. Since then, these crustaceans have been on a roll, a pretty pricey one at that, and there is a fascinating psychology and strategy to maintain its reputation.
Introducing insects to Western palates as high end cuisine is one approach that has been suggested. Since his insect inquiry, Redzepi has featured them and other Michelin starred restaurants have offered insects, as well. In order to avoid it being just a trend, Evans thinks haute insect cuisine should be one approach of many. “I think the best strategy is to have multiple strategies, ” he says, adding “I think that we have to be putting arguments together and figuring how they interact. Out of that can emerge something that actually has substance and isn’t just a trend or a fad. This is why we also primarily focus on flavor and on culinary application.”
As for the future, Evans says, “I don’t believe insects are a silver bullet for food security or sustainability – these things emerge from ecological resilience and biocultural diversity, but insects can be part of that diversity if we incorporate them into cuisine in culturally appropriate and systemically aware ways.” He adds, “I don’t have a vision for insects where they’re just replacing soy, for example – where they’re just a new, trendy input for a system that is still broken. That isn’t a productive vision for agriculture, and I think it’s dangerous and worrisome that they’re being framed that way right now. We have to do better – and one way to do that is to start with their deliciousness.”