On page 93 of a handsome new cookbook, there’s a photograph of delectable-looking risotto. Among other ingredients, the recipe calls for 220 grams of wild mushrooms, one garlic clove (crushed), 25 grams of buffalo worms, and a dozen grasshoppers.
This might not be what most of us would choose to whip up for dinner, but a growing number of highly vocal insectivores believe we should: The world’s population is growing so fast, they say, that we are on the brink of a food crisis, and bugs represent the way out.
The latest salvo in this debate is “The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet,” published this month by Dutch entomologists Arnold van Huis and Marcel Dicke, along with cooking instructor Henk van Garp. The book’s central point is that our aversion to insects is senseless and outdated. To bolster their argument, they recruit figures like former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who suggests that we should start raising insects on farms, like we do sheep.
Eating bugs is nothing new, of course. People have been doing it for millions of years, and still do in many parts of the world. In the West, the practice is more common as a reality-show ordeal, or a novelty snack (chocolate-covered ant, anyone?). When the giggles die down, what we’re left with is mostly revulsion. Few, certainly, would relish the prospect of tucking into a plate of maggot cheese, one of the foods featured in “The Insect Cookbook.”
The book’s sumptuous photography and lovingly assembled recipes, many of which are soothingly familiar (burgers, spring rolls, cupcakes), amount to an argument that this revulsion is actually our loss. The goal isn’t to substitute insects for the good stuff, the authors say. They want us to savor the distinctive flavors and textures of bugs, the way we do lobster meat—which was once, after all, a prison food.
“Our aim is to make a contribution to Western cuisine,” Dicke told Ideas from his office at Wageningen University, where he is a professor of entomology. “We’re going to make food even nicer.”
IDEAS: You’ve been spreading the word about eating insects for a while now, yes?
DICKE: We started in 1997, and through the years I’d say we’ve made some progress. Still, the response in the media is often, “Oh, here’s someone with a weird idea; let’s make fun of them.” But I’ll happily take part in that.
IDEAS: Why? Why are you doing this?
DICKE: The world is facing a food security problem. We hope to make people aware, to show them there are good reasons for eating insects. We’re not telling anyone to stop eating meat completely, but about 70 percent of all agricultural land is used to produce livestock, and we’re going to have to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050. There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this.
IDEAS: Also, you say, bugs are good for you.
DICKE: They are: They’re rich in minerals; they’re high in protein. In terms of nutrition, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be eating insects. They’re much better for you than regular meat.
IDEAS: Does this mean I could go down to my local park and pick up a few insects for dinner?
DICKE: No. You wouldn’t do that for the same reason you wouldn’t go to the park and collect the ingredients for a salad. Like plants, some insects are good for you and some are toxic. Also, you wouldn’t pick up your neighbor’s dog on the way home and say, “There’s my dinner tonight.”
IDEAS: Your book tells us that the most reliably edible insects fall into four categories: beetles; ants, bees, and wasps; caterpillars; and grasshopper-y things.
DICKE: Yes, but not all beetles are good to eat, and not all caterpillars. The insects that are OK are usually the ones being eaten in other parts of the world.
IDEAS: What kind of responses do you get when you share these ideas with people?
DICKE: It depends. Many people have been exposed to eating insects through travel, and they’re interested. Those who hear about it for the first time are not enthusiastic. But it’s in our genes to eat insects; humanoids have always done this. Around the world, 2 billion people eat them on a daily basis—there’s nothing strange about this.
IDEAS: Yet most people in our part of the world are grossed out by the idea of eating them. Why?
DICKE: It’s a good question, and I don’t really know the answer. In our culture, we’ve always been taught that insects are disgusting. We try to live in an insect-free world, a sterile world where everything is clean. On the other hand, this world wouldn’t be here if not for insects—without them there would be no pollination of plants.
IDEAS: For people who a
re disgusted, your book’s talk of “nutty meal worms” and “termite porridge” may not be helpful.
DICKE: Part of the marketing will be to change the names of these things. That will be the next step. But, again, we are making progress. In 2006, a poll in the Netherlands asked people if they would be willing to eat insects. The answers were 6 percent yes, 24 percent maybe, and 70 percent never. Last year, another poll had 37 percent saying yes and 33 percent maybe.
IDEAS: When I think of insects being eaten, I think of street markets with heaps of fried grasshoppers or grub-on-a-stick. What’s interesting about this book is that we’re often looking at familiar foods, like pizza and burgers. Is this an effort to make them more palatable to someone like me?
DICKE: The recipes are by our coauthor, who’s a chef. Some of the recipes in the book are based on regular recipes that he modified to include insects—like his bugitos, which are based on Mexican food. The important thing is how good they are.
IDEAS: There are lots of lovely photographs, including one of some crispy wontons that look so good you could almost overlook the fact they’re stuffed with worms. Again, I’m wondering if you’re trying to lure people like me in by disguising what’s involved.
DICKE: Not all people are ready to see what they what they are eating. So we have recipes where you don’t see what’s in them, and some where you do. There are pancakes with buffalo worms ground in and a salad with worms on top. There’s something for everyone.
IDEAS: Bugs have different tastes and textures, obviously. Can you run us through a few flavors?
DICKE: The most common one described is nutty. Bee larvae are sweet and honey-like. I’ve had ants that are like citrus. The spiders eaten in Cambodia are said to taste like chicken. But what does chicken taste like? It depends.
IDEAS: Where do we get the ingredients? It’s not like we can pop down to the local supermarket for a can of worms.
DICKE: We have been in discussions with a major supermarket chain, who say they don’t stock insects because they don’t have the customers, while customers are saying they can’t get this in supermarkets. But there are European companies preparing insects for human consumption. There will be a tipping point. One day, people will go to the shops for a box of fresh locusts or mealworms.
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.