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A food historian argues language deters us from eating insects

The English language describes insects as pests or creepy crawlies which evoke disgust, instead of whetting the appetite

Humans has sustained itself and survived at times on an insect-based diet for more than two million years. (Photo: Pixabay)
Humans has sustained itself and survived at times on an insect-based diet for more than two million years. (Photo: Pixabay)

Entomophagy is a word that has suddenly gained currency in the gastronomic lexicon in the West. Translated literally, it means consuming insects for food. Gourmet diners and innovative chefs also refer to this category of ingredients as 'Novel Foods'.

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Ironically, there is nothing new or novel about this activity. Humankind has sustained itself and survived at times on an insect-based diet for more than two million years. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors couldn't afford to eschew such an important source of nutrition. The creepy crawly creatures are a valuable source of protein, fatty matter and micronutrients iron, copper, zinc, riboflavin and amino acids.

What is hyped as an emerging trend - the wave of the future, etc. - has for millennia been part of traditional knowledge in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

What has brought the concept of Entomophagy in vogue is the apprehension and fears of international organizations like the FAO that anticipate severe food scarcity in years to come. There can be no denying that the diet of the affluent Western countries with emphasis on red meat, saturated fats, refined sugar has put an unbearable burden on the planet.

Raising animals and poultry and the culture of fast food leaves a carbon footprint that can't be sustained. It is in this context that the 'pests' offer hope of survival of our race and restoring Gaia-mother earth - back to health.

Scientific journals are flooded with peer group reviewed research papers that argue persuasively that the cost of 'farming' insects not only for animal, poultry or fish feed but also to meet the daily nutritional requirements of humanity is far lower than the wastage of scarce resources in breeding animals for the table.

It is estimated that a little over two billion persons all over the globe eat insects without any inhibition. Countries where insects are consumed and relished range from Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam to China, Japan and Korea.

The list includes Mexico, Brazil, Canada and Australia. Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana and most countries in Africa consume insects. As a matter of fact, approximately 60 per cent of the daily protein intake of the rural African diet is derived from insects.

Insects are not only the staple for the abjectly poor, drought-affected or famine-stricken. Nor is it difficult to overcome the disgust or revulsion factor. Actually, the problem is created by language. We use words to describe insects as vermin, pests, bugs that put us off. The French solved the problem a long time ago by describing a wide variety of flies, cockroaches, bugs and spiders with the elegant term Le bestiole. In sub-Saharan Africa edible stuff from the insect kingdom is referred to as Chiswa, Intuga, Ishwa none of these names evokes a feeling of revulsion. These relate to the taste and texture of what one bites into and chews.

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Cockroaches and crickets crisply fried are popular as appetizers in bars in Thailand. In India also silkworms stir-fried with finely chopped onions, garlic and roasted chilli powder are a popular snack in many states in the northeastern region.

Sneha Lata Saikia an enthusiastic home chef serves (stir-fried silkworms) at times with muri whenever they are 'in season'. The dish called Amrui tup, prepared with Red Ant eggs, is ritually eaten in Assam while celebrating Magh Bihu. In Chattisgarh and Jharkhand chaapar chutney prepared with eggs of yellow ants titillates the palate with a refreshingly different sour tang. Unless you have been told what it's made of you can't shudder in disgust or protest. In the tribal belt in Orissa chutneys and achaar are prepared with ants and their eggs.

Clever chefs are also resorting to another trick- masking the insect in familiar garb. Ant eggs are soaked in butter in Mexico, locusts draped in chocolate and some insects worm their way (pardon the pun) in an alcoholic drink like mescal.

To return to the emerging trend. FAO has really gone into overdrive to popularize Entomophagy. It has funded a project to domesticate palm grub. It has also inspired some food processing companies to develop and market insect-based products.

FassoPro in Burkina Faso is one such entrepreneurial venture. The adventurous foodies are trying out the 'Novel Foods' in the Netherlands and the USA. However, the promise held out by billions of insects that far outnumber homo sapiens to ensure food security and nutrition can only be realized when flours and fats can be mass-produced from this source.

Written by Delhi-based food historian Pushpesh Pant.

Also read | Are insects the future of food?

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