Australian-Vietnamese chef and SBS television host Luke Nguyen is a passionate advocate for eating bugs. “I think when we talk about insects, we should talk about how flavourful and great in texture they are, rather than how scary they are.”
Nguyen travels frequently around Asia and, “from Vietnam and Cambodia, to Laos, China and Japan, insects are an everyday occurrence for me,” he says. “I see them all the time on menus, and people really do watch the football with a bag of fried crickets.”
He’s one of a handful of trailblazing chefs – alongside Kylie Kwong at Billy Kwong (Sydney), Duncan Welgemoed at Africola (Adelaide) and Damon Amos at Public (Brisbane) – introducing edible bugs to the Australian palate and food vernacular.
“Eating insects isn't a new fad,” Welgemoed points out. “The Bible mentions entomophagy (the scientific term for eating bugs), as do texts from Ancient Greece and Rome. Us Westerners are the only ones who see insects as a pest and not for consumption.” For these chefs, using insects on Australian menus is never for shock-value, but instead about culinary range.
“With the South East Asian food I cook, really, it’s all about texture,” says Nguyen. “And for me, insects are a great textural delight. From silkworms, crickets and grasshoppers, to the larvae of bees, dragonflies or red ants. It’s crispy, it’s poppy, it’s silky; it’s all of the above.”
Then there are the flavours, says Nguyen. Insects, by turn, taste earthy, nutty or like lemongrass. Some even have coffee and deep chocolate notes.
With them, he creates pho and salads, vermicelli rice bowls – “with pickled vegetables, chargrilled pork and crispy fried crickets on top” – or bar snacks that go well with beer. “You get some salted fried anchovies, cashew nuts, sea salt, dried chilies, kaffir lime leaves and then you fry some crickets or grasshoppers through and mix it all up.”
Last year, Welgemoed opened Africola, authentically recreating the traditional recipes of his home country, South Africa.
“We fry crickets in chilli oil and finish with sea salt and lemon,” he says. “We stew mopane worms in a fermented tomato sauce called a sheba and we also use green ants as a seasoning for milk curds at the restaurant. We never do anything for novelty value; it always has to be delicious.”
Delicious as insects may be, they wouldn’t be cause for so much fervent discussion were they not being touted as the future of food. With climate change hanging over our current food supplies, these seemingly novel food sources will be taken increasingly seriously.
“By the year 2050 the world’s population will grow to over nine billion people. The way we make food at the moment just won’t be able to support that population,” says Skye Blackburn – who is also known as The Bug Lady, or Butterfly Skye. “So at the moment, everyone’s looking at alternative sources of food.”
Since 2007, Blackburn’s Sydney-based Edible Bug Shop has been developing environmentally friendly and sustainable techniques to commercially farm edible insects suitable for the Australian climate. Currently, the Edible Bug Shop is the only business in the country doing this.
As Blackburn explains, insects are considered key to a sustainable future.
“Beef, sheep and chicken take up a lot of space and require a lot of water. Because they’re mammals, they don’t convert all of what they eat into body mass, so they waste a lot of energy maintaining their own body temperature. Insects don’t take up a lot of natural resources and you don’t need farmland. You can breed them in an unused warehouse.”
In addition, they emit lower levels of greenhouse gases and have a high feed conversion rate: one kilogram of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein. Insects are also high in micronutrients, vitamins and fatty acids, meaning they’re more like a superfood than simply a protein source.
Through the Edible Bug Shop, Blackburn supplies insects to every restaurant currently cooking with them in Australia, and also creates her own products. She has developed a cricket powder, which is used to make food items such as granola, protein bars and breads. Blackburn thinks that by incorporating insects into more conventionally palatable formats, Australians will become used to the idea.
“People are a little bit disassociated from their food; especially when it comes to animals. That’s why we’re trying to come up with ways to make it easier for people to get over the initial ‘it’s a bug’ thing, while still knowing where their food come from.”
She predicts that in the next five years we’ll see more edible insects in powder form, throughout health food stores, supplement warehouses and even regular supermarkets.
In anticipation of this, the Edible Bug Shop has developed a strategy that enables it to expand its cricket farm in stages when required. With this expansion will come price reductions, which is good news for chefs: Nguyen says cost is the principal reason insects aren’t more commonly used in restaurants right now. “As more people choose insect protein, it will become more affordable,” Blackburn asserts. “In powder form, it will definitely be a regular food item for the next generation.”
But Nguyen goes as far as to imagine that we will one day choose bags of fried crickets as snacks. He cites Australia’s wholehearted embrace of sushi as an indicator: “I go to these restaurants and you’ve got really young kids loving sashimi. Who would have thought 20 years ago that kids would be eating fish roe and sea urchin, raw? Now they all are.”
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