Waiter . . . there’s a bug in my soup

Edible insects could provide humans with an adequate supply of food

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The crickets chirp before they are thrown into a pan, sauteed in vegetable oil and turned into crispy, crunchy snacks. They are one of the three toppings offered on crackers as hors d’oeuvres; a jam made from ants and rice grasshoppers boiled in a sweet soy sauce complete the insect triumvirate.

The orders keep coming. Up next are mealworms, which slightly begin to resemble torchietti pasta as their wiggling weakens the longer they remain in the pan.

“I think we’ll have about 100 participants today,” entomophagist Shoichi Uchiyama says.

Those attending the fifth Mushi Fes (insect festival), held last month at a basement of a Kabukicho building in Shinjuku, are mostly in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent of them are male, but the crowd also includes a few single females as well as couples on a date.

This year’s festival comes hot on the heels of the release of Uchiyama’s new books on entomophagy, or the consumption of insects as food. Perhaps not surprisingly, his book is titled “The Edible Insect Handbook.”

The consumption of insects has become increasingly talked about ever since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a report in May suggesting that edible bugs may become an essential source of food as the human population continues to grow. “The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report was a huge push for us,” Uchiyama, 63, says.

All of a sudden, the media started to cover this topic differently, he says, providing the perfect backdrop for his beloved cuisine to gain recognition worldwide. “It is gradually being taken as something more than just bizarre,” he says.

According to the FAO report, insects have been consumed for thousands of years and its roots can be traced back to the Old Testament.

“All winged insects that creep, going upon all fours, shall be an abomination unto you,” the Book of Leviticus cites. “Yet these you may eat of every flying insect that creeps on all fours: those which have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap on the earth.”

In present times, meanwhile, indigenous groups in Africa and Australia as well as a large population in Southeast Asia continue to consume everything from beetles, bees, wasps, termites, dragonflies and flies.

The consumption of insects remains uncommon in Japan’s major cities, but Inago rice grasshoppers cooked in soy sauce are sometimes eaten as side dishes or snacks in rural areas in Nagano and Yamagata prefectures. Bee larvae are cooked with rice or served sweetened with sugar in Nagano, Gifu and other prefectures.

The insect-eating population today is “at least 2 billion people worldwide,” FAO says. “Nevertheless, eating insects was — and still is — taboo in many Westernized societies.”

Unless the consumption of insects becomes widely accepted, the FAO report said, the world may not be able to feed its growing population, which is expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. Keeping the population fed will require more fertile land, a resource that is already scarce today.

The FAO report outlined three major reasons why entomophagy should be promoted.

First and foremost, insects are packed with necessary nutrition for humans, including vitamins, fat, fiber and minerals.

Because of their short lifespans and easy rearing techniques that require far less space than livestock, they emit less greenhouse gases and therefore can be considered much more climate friendly.

In contrast to other farm animals, insects also require less economic investment to start breeding — a key factor in helping impoverished nations secure a rich source of food.

Uchiyama’s organization, the Konchu Ryori Kenkyukai (Insect Cuisine Research Association), is the only Japanese group the FAO report mentioned.

“In Japan, the Konchu Ryori Kenkyukai . . . was created to acknowledge the presence of insect delicacies in historical Japanese cuisine,” the report said. “The group’s first bug-eating festival drew only 30 participants, but numbers have more than doubled since.”

When this segment of the U.N. paper is displayed on a wide screen at the Insect Festival, the crowd — some a little tipsy from slurping back some water-bug tequilas — celebrate the fact that a global organization has recognized their activities.

Then the event proceeds to a segment featuring guest Risa Okamoto, an artist who specializes in decorating live cockroaches with colorful ornaments, including Swarovski crystal.

“I am scared of cockroaches, but I like them because of that,” she tells the crowd when explaining her artistic motivation. “It’s a bit like being a fan of a horror movie.”

A number of people scattered throughout the audience nod in approval.

“How many of you have ever eaten cockroaches?” the emcee asks the audience as the program proceeds. About a third of the crowd raises their hands.

As a special gift for the event, Uchiyama, now sitting on stage as a panelist, lifts a small food container from his bag. Inside are cooked dubia cockroaches he brought from home, seasoned with soy sauce and sugar. Warned there may not be enough to go around, the crowd rushes to the stage for a taste of the delicacy.

“Are they good?” the emcee asks, to which the crowd roars back in the affirmative.

“It gets tastier the longer you chew it,” one participant says.

For Uchiyama, his first encounter with entomophagy occurred as a child growing up in Nagano Prefecture where eating silkworms in cocoons was common in his family. However, he never really got into the habit or understood it until 1998 when he visited an exhibition on edible insects held in Tokyo.

By the following year, Uchiyama was catching grasshoppers near Tamagawa River in Tokyo and feasting on them. Many of the insect recipes he has concocted with his wife — also from Nagano — were published in his 2008 book, “Tanoshii Konchu Ryoryi” (“Fun Insect Cooking”).

Of all the insects he has eaten over the past 15 years, Uchiyama says the larvae of a long-horned beetle was second to none for its ambrosial juices. “They taste like toro (fatty tuna meat),” he says.

His second-best recommendation is the pupae of Asian giant hornets, which has the flavor of pufferfish soft roe. “Those are best eaten shabu-shabu (lightly blanched in boiling dashi stock) style, with ponzu (soy sauce and citrus juice),” Uchiyama says.

Smoked cicada larvae rounds out his top three favorite insects to eat. The worst-tasting bugs on the planet, in his opinion, are the larvae of rhinoceros beetles. They stink, he says.

The Mushi Fes comes to a close with enthusiastic applause after hours of drinking and eating, and their final meeting of 2013 ends in yet another success.

“Now we go into what’s called the off-season, since it gets pretty chilly during the winter in Japan” and insects are hard to catch, says Mushimoiselle Giriko, who published a book on the consumption of insects last month.

However, as if proving FAO’s arguments, the front-runners of the trend say one can still secure enough insects regardless of the season.

“About half of the insects I eat can be purchased in ethnic supermarkets and grocery stores,” Uchiyama says. “And 20 percent I breed myself at home.”

Uchiyama presents a sample of his home-breeding program at the festival. He displays two chocolate-bar sized cockroaches from Madagascar in a transparent container. The bigger one is female, he says, noting that they move slower than common cockroaches found in Japanese homes. Uchiyama says they taste better, too. “If you’re lucky you’ll find eggs in their bellies, which are really delicious,” he says.

The majority of those in Western countries may look at what entomphagists eat and ask why? Uchiyama, however, prefers to ask why not?

“My goal is to continue spreading the culture (of insect eating) to others,” he says as he puts the Madagascar hissing cockroaches back in the box.

Those dainties aren’t for sharing with participants at this year’s Mushi Fes. They are for keeping at home, where they will stay safe from the winter chill to mate and create juicy, nutritious — and delicious — eggs.