The baby-grasshopper, lemon, and chilli lollipop I crunched my way through recently wasn’t exactly horrible, but it also wasn’t something I’d rush back for. It surely wasn’t the fault of either the infant grasshoppers or the chef who lollipopped them: my palate needs to catch up with the times.
For a while now, the hippest and most-lauded chefs have featured at least a few insect- and worm-based offerings on their menus. At Noma, René Redzepi has served up queen-ant egg tostada among other insecty creations, Archipelago in London received rave reviews for its caramel mealworms, and Alex Atala of DOM in São Paulo is ridiculously famous for his lemongrass ants (the ants themselves taste exactly like lemongrass: they aren’t flavoured at all).
And this isn’t just a high-end culinary happening, but a proposed future. A creepy-crawly diet — which has higher yields for the input, and reportedly less land use — is being touted as the magic bullet for our future protein needs. Of course, in many countries — often those with fewer avant-garde celebrity chefs per kilometre — insects and grubs for supper are nothing new. About 1 900 insect varieties are eaten around the world. Mopane worms are just one of the many creepy-crawly critters that South Africans are familiar with as delicacies. What’s new is the notion of breeding them on an industrial scale, and in countries where it’s not been done before.
But there’s never a simple solution to a complicated problem. Many lesser-heard voices say that the insect conversation should be more circumspect, rather than an assumed solution. It’s been pointed out that as some insect and worm farming requires machinery for control of heating, cooling, hydration, and even light levels. It seems to go against certain natural-farming principles. In the documentary Bugs, producer Andreas Johnsen and chef Roberto Flore take a nuanced and critical look at the issue, emphasising that all solutions are context-specific. Promoting subsistence insect production as a way for rural chicken farmers to be free of buying poultry feed is one thing; assuming that insects would be a problem-free solution when “farmed” by large industrial food companies to replace chicken on the human menu is another.
As for the ick factor, us non-insect eaters are just going to have to get our heads around the idea. We’re already eating bee vomit in the form of honey and crunching on marine insects — prawns — with abandon. In fact, sea prawns are so similar to the liver-coloured, stomach-turning Parktown prawns that skitter and scratch over Joburg floors, that it’s amazing we feel so differently about the two creatures. One thing’s for sure: if insect gastronomy takes off, we’ll need to brace ourselves for the endless mealworm and flying-ant tattoos appearing on every hip chef’s forearms.
• Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue
• From the May edition of Wanted 2019.