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edible insects

6 february 2022

Gina Louise Hunter's global history of Edible Insects builds on Julie Lesnik's Edible Insects and Human Evolution, which investigates the natural history of how humans and their primate relatives eat insects. Hunter's new book is about the cultural and culinary history of insects, a rich elaboration of a basic and nutritious food group.

Early in Edible Insects comes a description of a hunt for, and subsequent roasting of, a giant tarantula. Once the thing is cooked, you crack it open and the flesh inside is said to taste "something like smoked crab" (15). As I noted when reviewing Lesnik's book, if you can eat a king crab, there's no reason you can't eat a giant tarantula. They are practically cousins.

Neither is an insect, of course. The treats covered in Hunter's book aren't of the big meaty shell-creature variety. Insect foods tend to be chitinous crunchy whole adults, often deep-fried – or alternatively, and far tastier by reputation, larvae and pupae. The latter amount to eating worms: not true worms, but we group immature insects together with worms in popular taxonomy.

Either direction poses some problems for people who haven't grown up eating insects. Crunchy bugs on the one hand, worms on the other … neither sounds very tasty. Hunter quotes Rene Redzepi (121) to the effect that to gain broad acceptance, edible insects are going to have to be delicious. There's always that unobtainable grub from a remote province that is said to taste like ambrosial custard, but by the time bugs get to developed-world markets, they are usually dried out and tasteless.

Nor is insect culture an environmental panacea. Bugs seem to be everywhere, and could potentially feed many more people than they do; but gathering marketable quantities of a given species tends to crash its populations. Insects can be farmed, but then they need something to eat, and the footprint of entomophagy tends to expand and soak up more and more energy. Better to eat plants directly than cycle them through animals, even tiny animals.

Hunter includes several recipes. "The first step for the would-be insect chef," she warns, "is to acquire insects" (133). Again, there may seem no lack of certain insects in season, but the ones that live in proximity to humans may well have been sprayed with toxins by people less enthusiastic about that proximity. And mail-order bugs, as noted, may be dried out and tasteless.

A famous Chinese dish is called "ants in the trees" because ground pork morsels look like ants climbing noodle branches. Hunter suggests making the ants literal, though the "trees" might be pretzels, or celery root whittled down to look like branches. Escamoles, ant brood, are her personal favorite, though unavailable outside Mexico. One can raise mealworms at home – many the owner of a pet lizard has done it – but Hunter suggests frying them up or incorporating them into cookies ("Never put insect foods before diners who are unaware," she cautions, 133). Hence a problem I've noted before: fried snacks and cookies are not nutritionally optimal. Bee brood and crunchy silkworms sound pretty tasty but are also hard to find in middle America. Meanwhile, "Thai Giant Water Bug Soup" sounds like something you'd send back with the waiter.

Hunter, Gina Louise. Edible Insects: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2021.