For Kylie Kwong the journey from entomophobic to bona-fide insect champion and advocate for including bugs in the everyday diet has been a mixed path of discovery and therapy.
“I’ve really become quite obsessed,” enthuses the iconic Chinese-Australian chef, restaurateur and author, chatting at her Surry Hills restaurant Billy Kwong. “I was completely phobic! Absolutely arachnophobic and insect-phobic,” she urges, laughing at how far she’s come.
Across the intimate room, a hive of activity signals evening dinner prep and the room is scattered with crates of produce. Well known for her enthusiastic support of sustainable native Australian ingredients, including wallaby, warrigal greens and saltbush, Kwong’s food draws on both her Chinese heritage and unique Australian produce. The result is a distinctive melding of traditional Chinese techniques and flavours with local, very particular ingredients.
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Kwong’s latest step is that of adding insects to her menu. Inspired by a chat with wunderkind chefs Alex Atala (D.O.M., Brazil) and Rene Redzepi (Noma, Denmark), on the sustainable tenets and cultural history of using bugs in cooking, Kwong began her search for the right bugs to bring to her own menu.
“Alex told me about the ants he serves,” she says. “There are four types of edible ants in the Amazon; he serves one that’s called the lemon ant and it tastes like lemongrass and ginger… I came back completely obsessed with finding out more about edible insects.”
Her search led her to entomophagist Skye Blackburn. “I called my friend Varuni Kulasekera, who is an entomologist, and I asked her how I should go about locating someone who breeds edible bugs that are safe for human consumption. Through all the material that Varuni sent me, including some uni papers, which were fascinating, I found Skye and her business the edible Bug Shop. I called her and I said ‘I want to know how it all works’.”
For Kwong, this meant not only getting to know which kinds of insects Blackburn worked with, but how they were raised, what they were fed and how they were bred. “I now have roasted baby crickets on the menu, roasted wood cockroaches, dehydrated earthworms, roasted mealworms…and live green tree ants,” she smiles.
But first Kwong had to get past her own fears, which meant spending time getting to understand the bugs on a scientific level and breaking down her phobia through graded-exposure. “I read a whole lot of papers about the history of insects in China, where they have been eaten for four or five thousand years. Eating insects can be traced right back to Leviticus in the Bible. It’s this beautiful, fascinating story.”
One of the great turning points in Kwong’s personal struggle came with a little help from Kulasekera. “She said, ‘Kylie, you do realise that insects are actually crustaceans. Just think of what that cricket looks like and compare it to the prawn, yabby or crayfish’. And in fact insects are actually terrestrial prawns, hence the Chinese turn of phrase ‘prawns in the sky’ referring to grasshoppers and crickets.”
Kwong's interest in sustainability was another driving factor in overcoming her insect fears. “To produce 200 grams of beef takes approx 3000 litres of water, but to produce 200 grams of cricket flesh it takes one millilitre of water,” notes the chef, pointing out that the baby crickets on her menu are ready in six weeks and eat the equivalent of one carrot in their lifetime. Not to mention the minimal space they require.
“It’s very sustainable, but from a simple cook’s point of view they’re really delicious. And certainly in this country what I’m trying to do it source native insects: live tree ants, witchetty grubs, honey ants, Bogong moths, termites… But at this stage they’re all very difficult to source and are difficult to produce commercially.”
Despite the quirkiness, for Kwong this is no gimmick or fly-by-night trick. “I want it to become usual,” she says, noting that she applies the philosophy to her use of other native ingredients. “I want it to be an everyday thing, so it’s very much dotted throughout my whole menu now.”
So far, the response to dishes including crispy cricket prawn wontons and Cantonese fried rice with mealworms and chilli cricket sauce has been positive to say the least, but after her own journey she recognises that graded-exposure is the key when it comes to the idea of normalising insects as part of the diet. As such, the bug component on the Billy Kwong menu might be clear, but it’s far from overwhelming.
Working with the coffee and chocolate flavours of roasted wood roach, the grassy, green tea taste of dehydrated earthworms and the crisp, prawn shell texture of baby crickets is clearly a process that Kwong enjoys.
“I have a great time. I research and then I smell and taste them and feel what they would work with. I look at matching the flavour profiles without taking them out of context.”
But if you need a little more time to get used to the idea of munching on a mealworm, don’t worry. Kwong assures us that the bugs will be around for a while.
“They’re all an integral part of the Billy Kwong menu now.”