Review: On Eating Insects

Review: On Eating Insects banner image

The first, and I think only, time I had insects to eat was when Noma set up for two weeks at Claridge’s in the summer of 2012 (well, there was that time as a toddler I picked up a live beetle and chewed it, for my mother to then pick it out of my mouth bit by bit). The second of nine courses served up, and simply listed as “Ants” on the menu, was a Kilner jar filled with lettuce, sour cream, and live ants. When bitten into, theses ants gave off a lemongrass flavour that mingled with the sour cream to create a wonderfully crisp and refreshing salad.

This dish was inspired by the early work on insects that the Nordic Food Lab had begun in 2011 and would continue through to 2016. Founded in 2008 by René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, the Lab is a non-profit foundation for research into food and its culture “dedicated to fresh and bold ideas” – something that many leading chefs pushing boundaries and investigating new areas are doing; Virgilio Martinez comes to mind, with his Mater Iniciativa operation feeding into Central.

Much has been said in the last decade of insects as our saviour from the Malthusian nightmare that lurks just around the corner. You’d expect on first reading the book’s title that it’s intended as part of this conversation, and is going to promote insects as the redemption others have claimed. But the fact is that insects are not the miraculous salvation some would have you believe, and the book is clear about this up front in the introduction by Mark Bomford.

Bomford is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program and a member of the Nordic Food Lab’s advisory board. He wryly twists stats in the other direction, demonstrating that insects are actually hugely unsustainable, given the numbers we would need to feed us, and that we’d be better off eating whales; his point is well made – the insects-as-food deus ex machina can be a fallacious oversimplification of cherrypicked data.

Gutting and cleaning the masiinya (palm weevil larvae), Uganda. Picture credit: courtesy of Nordic Food Lab (page 126, upper right)

The unreliability of insects for this purpose becomes so obviously clear as a by-product of the work carried out, that it’s not something that’s actually addressed beyond the introduction. Nor was it something the Lab needed to investigate. So there was no need to mention that, to get rich countries eating insects and to cut the growth of meat consumption in developing countries, the entire perception of meat being for the rich and insects for the poor would need to be changed – an almost impossible task, given the issue of cost differential, and that this has been the case for centuries in all cultures due to the cost and role of livestock.

The question that underpinned the work the Lab set out to do regarding insects is a simple one: why don’t we eat insects in the West, and how do we get people to eat them? After four years of travel and research to answer this question, Phaidon has now published On Eating Insects, a book-cum-compendium of the Nordic Food Lab’s research and findings, complete with recipes. Apart from being a fascinating look into the subject of insects as food and how Nordic Food Lab has brought experts from multiple fields together to work and investigate subjects in a rigorous and scientific way, it is also a work of huge importance.

The work that Ben Reade, Josh Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst undertook with the Lab was rigorous and almost scientific in approach. From investigating how politics and power relate to insects, how people perceive the idea of eating them, how to get people to eat them, to the actual entomology, the team focussed on all of it, and their conclusions are laid out in essays by the team members. There are also tales from their time in the field studying first hand how different cultures view and eat insects, and the cultural significance they attach to them. The team travelled from Scandinavia to Australia, and across Africa, South America, and South East Asia in the course of their work.

Peas n Bees, recipe by Roberto Flore. Picture credit: Chris Tonnesen (page 289 )

What came out of these travels is how people in different places eat different insects – nobody eats all types – for example, insects that are forbidden to be eaten in one African village may not be in a neighbouring one. In fact, this phenomenon is also observable in the animal kingdom: chimpanzees in Uganda don’t eat the same bugs that chimpanzees in Guinea eat. The different approaches between the West and Asia are seen in the way that a recent food study found that diners in Holland cared overwhelmingly about the sustainability of the insects they ate while, in Thailand, a country with a long tradition of eating them, and home to the Talat Rong Kluea market which sells them, people were only interested in the taste.

While this makes for fascinating reading, it doesn’t of course help the book’s Western readers to eat insects, which is one of the Lab’s big aims. The latter third of the book is dedicated to recipes and stunning accompanying photographs. Of course, the dishes are restaurant dishes that could easily be served at Noma, but really that doesn’t matter too much given the lack of easily available insects in many Western countries. What makes up for this, and is a touch of genius, is the tasting notes, setting out the time, place eaten and flavour profile of the insects encountered on the team’s travels.

Once every decade or so there is a book that deserves to be read, and read carefully and considered seriously by people and policymakers from a wide spectrum of backgrounds. The last such book was The End of the Line by Charles Clover in 2004, dealing with overfishing and fish stock sustainability. Insects will not save us, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be eaten; we just have to be realistic about them and the role they could play. This book has the ability to start a truthful conversation about the issue. Chefs, food professionals, and those interested in ecosystems, sustainability and cultural and human diversity will find it engaging and of huge interest.

 

On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipe

By Nordic Food Lab, Joshua Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst

Published by Phaidon