AUBURN, Ala. - Have a craving for a snack that's sweet and creamy? Try a hissing cockroach. Or, if you prefer something nutty flavored and crunchy, leaf-cutting ants are a fine choice, according to Takumasa (Demian) Kondo, a Ph.D. student in Auburn University's Department of Entomology who recently gave a seminar on entomophagy, the practice of eating insects.
Kondo first encountered insect cuisine is his native country of Colombia, where a snack of leaf-cutting ants is often available at marketplaces in villages along the Andes mountains. Later, as he traveled around Colombia and the world, Kondo learned that many cultures eat a wide variety of insects, and he has become quite the gourmet insect chef himself.
"The U.S. and Europe are developing countries in this area," Kondo said with a laugh. Though insects have long been consumed by humans (even Aristotle once waxed eloquently on the flavors of cicadas) and have played an important role in the history of human nutrition in western North America, Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America, they were not so readily accepted by Eurocentric cultures.
Reports from early European settlers in the United States often mentioned – with a mixture of disgust and fascination – the insect dishes and "cricket drives" common among the Native American cultures they encountered. Aphids (a source of sugar), grasshoppers, cicadas, beetle larvae and caterpillars were commonly consumed by Native Americans before European influence squashed this cuisine. Kondo noted that some people in the western states still eat honey ants, and periodical cicadas are still eaten in the southern states.
According to Kondo, there currently are two major "hot spots" of entomophagy, Thailand and Mexico. "In Mexico, more than 200 species are consumed," he said. Among them is the agave worm, a moth larvae often seen in bottles of mezcal, a drink similar to tequila.
"In Thailand, one thing that surprised me was that they ate scale insects," continued Kondo, who is researching scale insect pests for his doctoral degree. "Scale insects are usually tiny, but these were very large and belong to the family Margaroridae." Other favorites of the Thais are honey bees, giant water bugs, weaver ants and grasshoppers, to name a few. In Indonesia, dragonflies are a favorite and in Africa grasshoppers and termites often are consumed. Kondo noted that insects are both nutritious and delicious. Most insects are high in protein, carbohydrates and other nutrients and usually are low in fat, and they have distinctive flavors. Male giant water bugs have a minty taste, probably related to the taste of the male pheromones, leaf-cutting ants (also known as "big butt ants") have a walnut flavor, fire ant pupae taste like watermelon (though Kondo noted that the flavor of these critters may vary from site to site) and silk worm pupae taste sweet and creamy.
He also offered some hints on knowing which insects to eat. "Red, orange or yellow, forego this fellow; black, green or brown, go ahead and toss them down" is one rule of thumb to follow. "Usually, insects that have very colorful parts also have nasty smells or poisons, and usually dark colored insects are less likely to be toxic," he said. "But this is not always the case," he added. The best way to select edible insects is to read a reference book on insect eating, and most experts strongly suggest that all insects should be cooked before they are consumed.
Some insects are eaten for reasons other than nutrition and flavor, added Kondo. Several, including scorpions and Spanish flies (blister beetles), are considered aphrodisiacs and Kondo said some people claim these work as well as Viagra. Other insects are used as condiments, such as dried giant water bug, which is often used in soups.
"I don't want to shock anybody," said Kondo, "but I have to tell you the truth. We are all entomophagers. Many insects or insect parts are in our foods, including cereals, fresh fruits and vegetables and dried fruits." Kondo noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully recognizes that insects are impossible to bar from processed or fresh foods. The FDA does, however, regulate the amount of insects, insect parts or eggs that are permissible in foods. For example, a package of frozen broccoli may legally contain no more than 500 aphids and a can of mushrooms may contain up to 24 mites.
Many modern entomophagers contend that insects should be the food of the future. They note that insects are nutritionally superior to many other meat protein sources, such as beef and chicken. In addition, insects are abundant (some 1,500 species have been deemed "edible"), require less space to be produced and harvesting insects for food could reduce the need for chemical pest controls. Insects might also provide a new alternative crop for small farmers.
The idea is catching on, sort of. In the western U.S., various restaurants are offering insects dishes on their menus, and in some circles these dishes are considered haute cuisine. Typically, these dishes are found in restaurants that specialize in pre-Hispanic or pre-Colombian food, which include dishes eaten by native Mexicans before the Spanish arrived with their European tastes.
Some specialty food stores also are carrying more and more insect foods. Maguey worms (the larvae of the giant skipper butterfly) have been canned in Mexico for some time, and now they are being imported into the United States. Other imported insect foods include Japanese "Baby Bees" (fried bee pupae with teriyaki sauce) and fried grasshoppers and silkworm pupae. However, insect connoisseurs often turn up their noses at these items, believing that the best tasting insects are fresh ones.
If entomophagy does become more common, Kondo said today's genetic technology may allow science to develop a new line of super insects -- larger grasshoppers, for example. "I just hope they aren't so large we have to use guns," he said with another laugh.
In the meantime, Kondo and others with a craving for bug cuisine must forage for their own insect ingredients. Luckily, many edible bugs are in abundant supply around homes and in the woods. And Kondo is quite willing to share his own recipes. Giant Water Bug Tempura anyone?
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