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Eating insects at Hawker’s festival

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Chef Gordon displaying his crickets at Hawker's festival

Chef Gordon displaying his crickets at Hawker’s festival

One of the star attraction of last week’s Vancouver Hawkers festival was the display of edible insects prepared by chef David George Gordon of Seattle.

I sampled some crickets prepared in a lime and corn salsa, which tasted wonderfully of lime and corn and cilantro. I also tried chapulina crickets dipped in molten chocolate: the dark chocolate was wonderful and rich, with a bit of spiciness, which makes sense since chapulinas are prepared with lime and chili. I also tried a cake prepared with insect protein powder (much too sweet for my taste).

I was a bit disappointed. After all, edible arthropods include some delicacies with unique taste: crab, lobster, shrimp, to name a few. But these insects, well, seemed to lack a distinctive taste: the tofu of the animal world, as it were. And there was nothing unique about the texture, either.

(I must admit, I was a bit reluctant at first, because these bugs come whole in their shell, and I don’t particularly like to crunch on shrimp shells. But these were so small, the crunchiness of the shells was barely noticeable – you had to pay attention. I did find a tiny leg part stuck between my teeth later, though; no biggy. Unless you’re squeamish.)

Chef Gordon is not the first one to bring edible bugs to Vancouver. Meeru Dhalwala, of Vij’s and Rangoli, pioneered cricket naan and parathas, and they were popular (they were discontinued because a reliable supply of insects is hard to secure).

But if there’s no distinct “insect-ey” flavour, why bother? Well, part of the appeal is environmental. Insects are abundant, and the ones that we eat are in no danger of disappearing. Insects are a very efficient source of protein, and can be grown without impacting on wild lands. Insects also excel at processing waste and turning it into protein. According to Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke,

Cookies and cakes made with insect protein powder at Hawker's

Cookies and cakes made with insect protein powder at Hawker’s

insects are efficient to produce. They’re cold-blooded so don’t require the extra food energy for body warmth. Ten kilograms of feed produces one kilogram of beef, three kilograms of pork and five kilograms of chicken. In comparison, that feed produces nine kilograms of locusts. And insects are rich in protein, fat and vitamins. (One hundred grams of silkworm moth larvae contains 100 per cent of daily requirements for copper, zinc, iron, thiamin and riboflavin). Crickets are high in calcium and termites, in iron.

Insect foods are common in Latin America and South East Asia; in Laos, cricket farms have been touted as a way to end food insecurity, as well as being a means to produce animal protein that results into the least amount of greenhouse gases emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has published several reports (here, here or here; or check out this congress here) about the potential of insect food – pointing out that lack of research and overall knowledge is holding back the potential of this resource.

There’s also the amazing potential of insects in converting organic waste into edible feed; one of the exhibitors at Hawkers was the start-up company OfBug, currently located at UBC, that produces mealworm for chicken feed using food waste as a feedstock: a faster, more efficient process than composting. But I’ll save that for another post.

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