Would you like some fried insects with that?
As conventional livestock industries struggle to meet growing demand, insects have come to be regarded as a power protein and sustainable solution.
Scientists have been eying insects as an alternative protein to beef or chicken in order to resolve the meat crisis due to a growing population and higher meat consumption.
Insect farming is environmentally friendly and sustainable, producing only a fraction of the greenhouse gasses of livestock production while consuming much less water and feed.
For years, the United Nations has been advocating insects as a solution to world hunger, as they are protein rich with high levels of vitamins and minerals.
The global trend of entomophagy, the term for eating insects, is also growing. More people are talking about insects as food and the subject has stirred heated debate on Chinese social media. A recent discussion that “insects may become new food for humans” had more than 40 million views on Weibo.
A lot of people shared their insect-eating experience, mentioning dishes such as deep-fried cicadas and crickets.
Although eating insects may be a hard sell, the practice is quite normal in many places around the world — more than 1,000 kinds of insects are eaten by choice.
China is among the countries with a culture of insect cuisine. Shandong, a major agricultural province, often suffers from plagues of locusts that would strip the fields of crops. Some would say that the people who caught, fried and ate the locusts saved the day, which may be an exaggeration but implies how Chinese people have been eating insects.
In 2017, a village in the city of Weifang in Shandong spotted large numbers of locusts at the beginning of September, which expanded quickly to affect the corn fields in nearby villages. An interesting phenomenon at the time of crisis was that people teamed up to catch locusts with nets — the road was crowded with cars that drove people there to “harvest” the insects with catches of more than 50 kilograms per night.
The local people enjoy eating deep-fried locusts, and not only do they catch the insects in the fields, they have even developed locust farming and sell them at over 40 yuan per kilo.
The southwestern province of Yunnan is known not only for its abundant produce, but also an insect cuisine that’s deeply rooted in the regional culture.
Many ethnic groups in Yunnan have a culinary tradition of eating insects, and they even host festivals to celebrate the fact.
Different kinds of insects, from crickets to honeybee pupa, are cooked in various ways like deep-frying and braising. Insects are served in restaurants, and waiters may even explain the different tastes and textures to diners, which does give chills to people new to the idea.
Nancy Shu, a 31-year-old who grew up in Yunnan, started eating insects from a very young age when the family would order insect dishes in restaurants. A special dish at the restaurant near her home was phasmids, or stick insects.
“My mother brought me to Xishuangbanna (a Dai autonomous prefecture in the south of Yunnan) when I was young. While she was teaching her class, I took a plastic bottle outside to catch the grasshoppers. After I filled the bottle, I took it to the kitchen and the cook fried them for me at lunch, they were crunchy and tasted like puffed snack,” said Shu.
Insects are commonly deep-fried in Yunnan cuisine, or put in soups and salads. Shu described a dish called ant egg salad, which isn’t easily recognized as an insect dish — you won’t know by eating it until the ingredient is revealed.
As the region has countless species of insects, it’s not limited to a specific area or ethnic group. There are insect feasts celebrating the tradition, too.
“One of the ’18 Strange Things about Yunnan’ is three mosquitos make a dish, which explains two questions: the insects in Yunnan are large in size and the Yunnan people eat them, it’s a quite normal thing,” she said.
The insects consumed by Yunnan people are mostly caught in the wild, but varieties like honeybee pupa can be farmed.
Insect delicacies such as the classic deep-fried crickets can be found in some Yunnan restaurants in Shanghai.
Ants and scorpions are also common insects consumed in Chinese cuisine or used in traditional medicine. Dried scorpions are seen in TCM shops and ants can be infused in liquor to make medicinal wine.
For most people who are from cultures without an insect cuisine, the idea of eating insects as a normal food will take a long time getting used to. Some people are working on making insects more presentable and easier to accept.
A cricket energy bar is an example of making insect-based food not so, well, insect-like.
The brand Chapul sells such products, and you won’t see the image or figure of a cricket on the packaging of the energy bar. It’s advertised as “a complete protein blend that is high in iron, vitamin B12, prebiotic fiber, and rich in Omega 3s.”
These snacks are made from “cricket flour,” which is said to have balanced and complete amino acid profile and prebiotic fiber, while free from the hormones and allergens found in soy and whey. The product can be incorporated in baked goods or smoothies.
Chapul also sells cricket protein powder in flavors such as chocolate and vanilla. The brand’s mission is to introduce edible insects into Western cuisine as a healthy and sustainable protein.
In the West, insects are also used in making ice cream and pasta. The brand Cricket Pasta produces a product that’s made with 20 percent of cricket flour and 80 percent wheat flour, and it looks just like normal pasta. A box of 350 grams of cricket pasta retails for US$5.9.