Thursday, November 25, 2010

Eating insects

(or: Does entomophagy bug you?)

A week ago today I had a solo evening free in Cambridge, Massachusetts; I'd come east for a series of work-related meetings.

I took the T from my hotel to Harvard Station, walked around the campus a bit, and then around Harvard Square. I picked up a free newspaper and found a decent-looking Thai restaurant. The chicken curry with mango looked pretty good, and when the server brought it out it tasted pretty good too. One of a pair of young Japanese women sitting at the next table turned my way to ask what my dish was called. She spoke English with a thick accent, and I'd heard her order plates of drunken noodles for both herself and her friend. The rest of their conversation had been in Japanese. I wondered whether drunken noodles was the only dish she recognized on the English-language menu, and whether she was planning to order whatever I was having next time around.

The newspaper I'd picked up to keep me company over dinner was a weekly called The Phoenix, one of many freebies in stands along the streets surrounding the campus. An article featured on the cover had caught my eye: Eat me: Delicious insects will save us all. The lead paragraph: "Insects are a more sustainable protein source than cows or pigs, they're more nutritious, and they're being taken seriously. The United Nations has thrown its weight behind insect consumption, and more and more people are recognizing that bugs could be a solution to a host of emerging problems, including world hunger and environmental woes."

It's Thanksgiving today, so why not share some of what I learned from The Phoenix on this topic, and, after returning to my high-speed internet equipped hotel room, on the intertubes too.

Fascinating facts:

  • The world's total meat supply quadrupled between 1961 and 2007, during which time per capita consumption more than doubled, according to the New York Times in 2008.
  • "An estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation," according to that same NYT article.
  • "To produce one kilogram of meat, a cricket needs 1.7 kilogram of feed -- significantly less than a chicken (2.2), pig (3.6), sheep (6.3), and cow (7.7)." This according to Arnold van Huis, an entomologist based at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in a recent opinion-piece in The Scientist, to which the article in The Phoenix called my attention.
  • "Additionally, the edible proportion after processing is much higher for insects -- it's 80 percent in crickets -- than for pork (70 percent), chicken (65 percent), beef (55 percent), and lamb (35 percent)." Ibid.
  • The UN is really into this insects-as-food thing. Check out the Edible forest insects page, complete with video, on the site of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Arnold van Huis, the entomologist quoted above, really gets around. The UN's FAO site links to his research group in Holland. The U.K.'s Guardian published an article in August titled Insects could be the key to meeting food needs of growing global population and van Huis seemed to be the expert behind the curtain in that article too. But this isn't just some Dutch scientist's fetish. Follow the Guardian link, and check out the photo in that article of skewered scorpions waiting for hungry customers at a food stall in Beijing. I saw virtually the same scene when I visited Wangfujing market in that city about five years ago. This insect-eating business is for real. No, I didn't sample any myself ... in Beijing I stuck to the bin tang hu lu, skewers of candied hawthorn fruits dipped in a sugar syrup that hardens to a sweet, crackly carapace. Delicious.

The article in The Phoenix gives recipes for Roasted snack crickets à la carte, Mealworm Chocolate Chip Cookies, and a Mealworm Stir-Fry. The cricket recipe is very simple. There are only two ingredients: live crickets and salt. The Mealworm Stir-Fry was pictured, in color, in the print copy of the newspaper. Honestly? My mango curry was easier on the eyes.

Happy Thanksgiving!!





Thanks to Xosé Castro for the image of deep-fried crickets from a market near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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