Meat is falling out of favour. It’s a strange thought to entertain, that a food group so ubiquitous might one day disappear from dinner plates everywhere. It doesn’t help either, that the commercial meal industry is plagued by poor and unethical practices, which has contributed to the ongoing rise of veganism and vegetarianism. At the upper echelons of dining, meat has also been steadily taking a back seat; most famously exemplified by Alain Passard’s decision to take meat off the menu at his restaurant, L’Arpège, back in 2001. I once shared a house with six other students in Europe, five of whom were vegetarian. It was a new experience, living with people who didn’t eat meat: I remember the beefy whiff, and collective revulsion that hung in air as I roasted marrow bones in the oven—the very smell of meat was already cause for disgust.
On the other end of spectrum, you get the meat-loving cult of masculinity whose outspoken priests include people like Fergus Henderson and Anthony Bourdain. There’s good reason for the reverence towards meat. It sits high on the hierarchy of desired foods, even in countries where meat doesn’t play a role in traditional diets like in India and ancient Japan. Meat provides a combination of fat and umami, and is particularly well suited the Maillard reaction. Achieved by browning meat under heat, the Maillard reaction happens when amino acids react with reducing sugars to create flavour. Flavour that evolutionarily speaking, is desirable as it let us know when food was cooked.
Imagine this: a perfectly cooked steak, the platonic idea of a steak if you will. A seared slab of beef glistening in its fat and juices, mahogany with maillard reactions and perfectly pink and tender within. Its meaty aroma triggers every ancestral urge in your brain, including memories of huddling around a fire to roast freshly-caught mammoth.
Yet, chow down on some fried cricket, and you might just find similar primal sentiments surfacing. Insects were a large part of homo sapiens’ diet before we progressed to being hunter-gatherers or farmers, and are commonly consumed in many cultures around the world today.
We’ve all seen those episodes of Fear Factor where its contestants put up a show of gagging on pulsating maggots, or even durian. But as with most things, taste preference can be very much a cultural construct. It’s here where a little bit of anthropology comes in. Much of the Western world originates from areas within the northern latitudes, where colder climates meant that insect protein was not viable because, well, there weren’t many insects. Which is why you’ll find bugs on in much warmer climates: from streetside chapuline (grasshopper) tacos in Mexico to fine-dining temple to Amazonian produce, D.O.M, in Brazil, where leafcutter ants that taste uncannily of lemongrass perch atop pineapple cubes.
Thanks to decades of conditioning from everything from reality TV to travel shows, entomophagy, or insect eating, in the West is something to test the limits of one’s bravery. It’s also another reason why insect consumption has been slow to catch on in the Western world, although things are definitely changing: tangy ants show up as a seasoning in culinary deity Rene Redzepi’s menus, while bug-focused restaurant The Grub Kitchen in London offers mealworm hummus alongside cricket falafel.
Gram-for-gram, insects have been found to be more nutritious and eco-friendly compared to conventional, animal sources of protein: mealworms contain more than 50% more protein than chicken, while crickets have been found to be many times more efficient to rear than cattle, expending far less resources; and they don’t taste all that bad either. Deep fried tarantulas, a delicacy in Cambodia, has been compared to soft shell crab, while toasted and salted mealworms go down as easy as peanuts.