About seven years ago, a new format of dining whetted appetites and imaginations—home chefs would invite guests over and delight them with regional delicacies. One such chef was Mumbai-based Gitika Saikia, who specialises in Assamese food. During one such meal, she served dishes made with insects like silkworm pupae. I am from Assam, yet I was completely unfamiliar with the dish at the time and wasn’t tempted to try it. In fact, I believed it wasn’t Assamese food.
Little did I know then how the perception of cuisine is shaped by caste, class and privilege. I had had no exposure to the food of communities like the Kachari and Bodos. Saikia is Kachari and her husband is Bodo, and they have fond memories of eating insects during festivals like Bihu.
Insects, in fact, are integral to sub-regional cuisines across the country, a source of nutrition for marginalised communities whose food has been derided and reviled: be it roasted bee larvae from Nagaland, water beetles in Assam or date palm worms in Odisha. Anthropologist Dolly Kikon, during a recent live session on Instagram (@serendipityartsfestival), explained how ideas of purity in food have been dictated by Brahmanical notions and reflected on pop-cultural influences. Horror movies, for instance, tend to portray insects as creepy-crawlies that emerge from rotting mummies, instilling a sense of fear and reinforcing a sense of disgust.
No mainstream chef in India seems to have taken to insects so far and the concept of insects as food is yet to gain popularity—but attitudes are beginning to change. In 2014, about the same time as my first encounter with silkworm pupae, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization published a report titled Edible Insects: Future Prospects For Food And Feed Security. The foreword says: “It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today—there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide—and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated.” It then goes on to examine the role of insects in “sustaining nature and human life” to enhance food security.
This year, the report proved to be the starting point for a three-month residency programme, The Boochi Project, by writer and permaculture designer Tansha Vohra that seeks to explore entomophagy and insect-eating in India—it’s supported by The Serendipity Arts Residency’s Food Lab.
Insects, notes Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Foundation and Festival, are a sustainable, protein-rich and affordable source of food. “The practice (of insect-eating) can be a great alternative source of nutrition and an eco-friendlier way of sourcing, aiding sustainability. As we look for alternative sources of protein which can give us adequate nutrition as well as be easy to sustain, insects seem to be the future of food, in some respects. Many cultures already incorporate insects in their diet but this project was also of interest for us as it examines ideas of purity in food, as well as popular notions of the source of nutrition and consumption, deeply entrenched in India as well as many parts of the world,” she says.
For The Boochi Project, which started in August,Vohra has been examining the past, present and future of Indian cuisines that contain insects and even consider them festive foods. She says: “Gitika had told me a really sweet story. In their community during Bihu, there’s a food ritual to prepare a dish with 101 green vegetables. But, in most cases, it’s impossible to collect so many different varieties. So they eat weaver ants, believing it has ingested all these vegetables.”
Vohra says close to 400 varieties of insects are eaten across India. In Nagaland, bee larvae is roasted and eaten like a snack, Chhattisgarh’s ant chutney is considered a delicacy, and in Tamil Nadu winged termites are fried and eaten like a side dish. She is curating her findings on the Instagram page @theboochiproject and detailing five recipes.
The pandemic and ensuing restrictions have forced her to adopt a hybrid model for her residency work. At present, live interactions are being curated online, though an offline exhibition is being planned early next year. One of the most riveting live sessions was with Kikon, on insects and food identity in India and the subconscious influences on human diets.
When Bengaluru-based Vohra started research, she began by asking people, mostly city-dwellers, if they knew people who ate insects. The responses, often condescending, were instructive. “When we say Indian cuisine, foods from these (marginalised) communities are not represented,” she says. “With The Boochi Project, one of the aspects I want to understand is why dishes with insects are excluded from mainstream food conversations. Nobody is talking about them in the same vein as butter paneer.” In fact, these foods face scrutiny and outright criticism.
Saikia was trolled incessantly for showing a dish with silkworm pupae on the Netflix show Menu Please in January 2020. Her social media accounts were filled with comments saying this was dirty food, not something the Assamese eat. For Bohag Bihu, the harvest festival celebrated in April, Saikia usually serves a dish with ant eggs. She is inevitably criticised for not highlighting the popular doi-seera (curd-flattened rice) but she is keen to bring lesser-known foods to the forefront: “Why should I be ashamed or embarrassed of the food that I grew up eating?”
This week, Vohra posted the first recipe, of silkworm pupae with piquant fermented bamboo shoot from Nagaland. Rajgarhia says The Boochi Project has received “favourable responses” and adds that they hope the entomophagy discussion in urban India will evolve further. “We hope to showcase this project, if conditions permit, at the India Art Fair as a kind of miniature ‘supermarket of the future’ where insect-related products will be easily and readily available in the grocery section, along with write-ups explaining the usage and recipes.”
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