Will eating bugs solve the world's food problems?

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We've got food tours, wine tours, even specialized chile tours. And then there is the bug tour, as taken by British gastronaut Stefan Gates for the BBC documentary Alien Nation.

Gates has a wonderfully curious turn of mind and a playful sense of science. See his glow-in-the-dark jello. (By the way, the secret there is tonic water.) He has written The Extraordinary Cookbook, but this latest tour took him into new territory.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Have you given up the glow-in-the-dark jello in favor of bugs, and why?


Stefan Gates

Stefan Gates: Well, I'm fascinated by the secrets that food hides, whether it's fluorescing under ultraviolet light or something a little bit deeper. I'm also fascinated by concepts like disgust. I love the fact that food leads us to discover something profound about people, about ourselves, about morality and emotions. Insect eating is particularly fascinating because it's so paradoxical. It reveals a lot about ourselves. I think it reveals a lot to myself about me.

On one side, insects are perfectly edible. They're nutritious, and they've got a long and noble history in cooking. But reactions to them, especially in the West, especially among people I know -- and myself, to be honest -- are often violently negative. I wanted to find out what this means. Why are we disgusted? What is disgust, and what lies beneath it? Also, what does it tell us about the people who hunt and farm and eat them?

Just as a starting point, what are your views? What do you think about the idea of eating insects?

LRK: Intellectually, I see them as a source of protein. I know they're being looked to as an ecological solution to what's happening on the planet, and I try to be open-minded about it.

But I hesitate. Crickets? I've never eaten a cricket. Maybe the chocolate-covered ones, but that's cheating. The yuck factor comes into it, and I really don't like that about myself.

SG: I have exactly the same thing. I've made lots of documentaries and programs around the world where I come across insects. They crop up in conversation, especially when you're interviewing people who are particularly poor or who are on the margins of society. There's a lot of insect-eating. I'm very conscious that if somebody offers you food, it's a huge insult to turn it down, especially in marginalized peoples where they struggle to feed themselves well enough anyway.

I try them, and on one level, I'm fascinated by what they taste like. But also, to be perfectly honest, I partly eat it because I know it'll make great TV. That's a shallowness in myself, and I really wanted to get to grips with it. Because as you say, there are a lot more people now talking about insects as potentially a food of the future, potentially a way out of the planet's looming food crisis.

So I spent 10 days eating insects for every meal on a tour of Thailand and Cambodia, where there's a huge amount of insect-eating.

LRK: I'd love to know what were you tasting. What were you actually putting in your mouth, and how were you reacting to it?

SG: The most popular insects are crickets, grasshoppers and giant water bugs. Crickets are pretty small; they're about the size of the end of your thumb. They're alive and they sit in these vast tubs. They are usually dropped into water to drown and then thrown into hot oil and deep fried. What you get is this very crispy taste that's full of umami.

The thing about insects is that because they have an exoskeleton, there's a huge amount of surface area compared to volume, so you get a huge amount of caramelization on the outside. They taste like crisps, or what you call potato chips. They're crunchy; they're tasty. They're always scattered with a mixture of salt, sugar and a little bit of MSG. It's a very recognizable flavor.

Giant water bugs are a bit different. You pull the back off, and underneath there's a huge swelling of green eggs. You eat that bit, deep fried. I thought they tasted a bit like pistachio. They're slightly nutty. They look green, and so you impose this taste upon it. They're also incredibly tough; it's like eating a big hunk of plastic. I ripped my throat apart the first time I tasted them, but they're everywhere, and you begin to eat them more as a snack. As you throw yourself into it and you grind yourself down, you stop being disgusted and you power through your own senses of fear and ignorance. You begin to appreciate them for what they are.


Ant egg salad

LRK: On a scale of deliciousness, was there something that hit your sensibility?

SG: Well, the grasshoppers are pretty good. They're the best of the small ones. The tarantulas, which taste of shrimp, are OK.

The thing that blew my mind was a salad made from red ants and red ant eggs. It was an absolute cacophony of flavor and texture and taste, which really transcended anything else I've ever tasted. Red ants are crunchy, and the eggs are milky and sour. They're like an insect caviar, and they're in a delicious salad dressing that makes them a little bit sour.

But it's this entire experience. You're sitting in a field in Cambodia with people who are so far away from you in terms of culture. You reach a place where you dignify them and show them respect, and you transcend your disgust. Then you become nonjudgmental and innocent all over again, in essential terms as much as cultural or moral terms. You've wiped your slate clean, in a way. It may sound overblown, but it feels like a rebirth of finding again what food means.

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