More than just creepy-crawlies, insects may be the answer for the world's nutrition and environmental issues. Lucy Corry meets advocates of eating food with six (and eight) legs.
There are ants in Javier Carmona's kitchen and he's pretty happy about it. These aren't the kinds of ants that march through pantries, leaving a chemical stench and sticky footprints; these are crisp black critters that he's currently scattering over dishes of sweetcorn with chipotle butter, coffee crema, dried manchego cheese and toasted corn silk. "They're quite citrusy," he says chirpily.
Carmona, head chef at hip Auckland restaurant Inti, is no stranger to unusual ingredients. Cynics might say that embracing insects is just the latest way to capture diners' dollars, but he's adamant that there's more to it.
"We're not trying to be gimmicky; we're not trying to freak people out. I'm not doing this to be 'wacky Javier'. It makes sense culturally to our restaurant because insects were a huge pre-Hispanic food source and the Aztec and Mayan cultures survived on them," he says.
"They taste good as well. More importantly, there's a social aspect to it — insects are high-protein, they are good for the environment, producing them doesn't trash our waterways, they don't contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, there aren't the same costs to feed them … there are a multitude of reasons why eating them makes perfect sense for us."
If you think bugs are best when sprayed into submission, the thought of eating them may horrify you. But as a much-vaunted 2013 report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation has detailed, farming — and eating — insects could both improve global food security and slow down the planet's rampant destruction.
As a chef, Carmona is part of a movement to ensure we all have food on our plates in a world where many people have no idea where their next meal is coming from.
While insects are regularly consumed in Asia, Africa and Latin America, most of the Western world has a lot of catching up to do.
"It's about bridging that gap and presenting these ingredients so people feel comfortable," Carmona says. "It's clear that the planet is struggling. Why not embrace a food source that's clearly the answer?"
Those questions — and many more — are explored in more detail in The Gateway Bug, a documentary that comes to New Zealand screens this month. First-time film-makers Johanna B. Kelly and Cameron Marshad spent two years gathering information about the fledgeling insect protein industry in the United States for the film, which follows the stories of passionate entomophagists (insect eaters), start-ups and environmentalists.
Kelly says they got the idea for the documentary after a sunny Sunday brunch with marine biologist friend Tyler Issac.
"I always tell people that we didn't choose bugs, but that the bugs chose us," she says.
"Tyler told us about the food drought and, as part of his research, he was looking at fish. One study predicts that all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048 — and one of the reasons for that is that we're catching wild fish to feed the farmed fish because there aren't any wild fish left for us to catch. Tyler was looking at ways to farm insects to feed the fish instead and what he was telling us was fascinating. He's a smart guy and by the end of brunch we had our film in a nutshell."
Issac is one of 50 interviewees in the film, which mixes real-life horror statistics and archival footage with the stories of those who are trying to disrupt the status quo of food production and make a difference.
"The fact that most of us don't know what the impact of our Western diet is having on global warming is frightening and it became very important to us to spread that word," Kelly says. "When you're given a very important piece of information to save humanity, you suddenly feel compelled to tell everybody."
She and Marshad are adamant that their film is not just designed to convince people to eat bugs. "It's about so much more than that. Eating bugs is just one tiny element of the many things that we in the West need to do to start combating these problems," Kelly says.
Dunedin locust farmer Malcolm Diack can't wait to see the film and feel a little less alone in his own bug-based quest.
Diack started farming locusts for pet food in 2009, but changed his focus after reading a newspaper article about Israeli grasshopper farmers and "the food of the future" a couple of years later.
"I ate a couple and thought, 'Actually, these are really good.' I started getting friends to try them just so I could prove I wasn't going mad."
After positive feedback from his mates, Diack started pitching his product to Dunedin restaurants and eventually found a customer in the Octagon's Vault 21. The resulting publicity was a huge boost and he now sends tubes of live locusts to restaurants around New Zealand.
Last year Otago Locusts won the novel food category at the New Zealand Food Awards, which came with $10,000 worth of product development assistance from science and tech facility FoodBowl.
Even so, Diack says he's a long way from being able to put his window cleaning business on ice and concentrate on locusts full-time. He thinks we need to get over the fear factor — "children are really enthusiastic about them, but older people are more difficult to convince" — and the industry needs to grow and develop so the price comes down.
"My insects taste good, but not many people eat one and then say, 'Yum, I'll take a kilo of these a week.' They're about 70 per cent protein so they do fill you up, but my locusts cost about $1, each so they're an expensive way to eat."
He doesn't eat them regularly himself ("I see them all as dollar signs, so I only have them about once a month") but he loves to experiment with ways to cook them.
"I think they're best deep-fried — you just heat up a couple of centimetres of oil and drop the locusts in for 20-30 seconds. They're crunchy and very moreish, like chips. Still, my friends say that the day when we are all eating my insects there probably won't be anything else left to eat or do and the world will be in a really bad way."
Back in his Auckland kitchen, Carmona is confident that we'll develop an appetite for bugs before the end of days is upon us.
"It's like the arguments about organics. Fifteen or 20 years ago no one wanted to buy organics because they couldn't see why you'd want to buy a wrinkly, funny looking carrot from a corner hippie shop for $5. These organically grown, wonderful-tasting vegetables didn't make sense because no one could afford them. Until these things are available in a much larger volume, it's a huge contradiction: they talk about this ingredient that has the capacity to feed the world, but no one who is impoverished can afford it.
"It's like the black ants we buy — they cost about $10 for 5g. It might not sound like a lot, but it's just 5g. You can't give someone just one ant. Putting them on the menu has actually created a huge problem for us. We're selling heaps of them, which is great, but it does cost."
While Carmona is enthusiastic about the merits of cricket flour — "you don't see any critters on your plate and it's really versatile because you can hide a powder or flour in anything" — there's not much demand for it from home cooks.
Trend-setting home delivery grocery and menu planning service My Food Bag says it's keeping a close eye on the trend but there won't be any "creepy crawly dishes" added to its repertoire in the near future.
You won't find any insect protein of any kind at Countdown supermarkets, though spokesperson Kiri Hannifin says the chain would consider stocking it in some stores if customers wanted it. Auckland high-end food chain Farro Fresh was offered cricket-based flour, protein bars and pasta back in 2016 but declined to stock them because they didn't think customers would be keen.
Two years later they still don't see high demand, though a gluten-free paleo loaf containing cricket flour "does sell well". Julie Moore, owner of upscale Wellington grocery store Moore Wilson, says there was very little interest in cricket flour when they stocked it recently.
"It's a very niche product. I think people just can't get their heads around it," Moore says. "There's lots of logic to why we should be eating these things, but I'm not sure people can get past the bug factor."
Feeling the fear and eating bugs anyway is one of the major propellers behind Auckland business Crawlers. The online business, which sources edible insects from farms in Thailand, does a steady trade in selling bugs that you wouldn't want to meet on your bathroom floor at 3am.
Matt Genefaas, who set up Crawlers with partner Daniel Craig in 2014, is passionate about the sustainability of eating insects. Neither he nor Craig have any background in the food industry and they have no interest in farming insects themselves (Genefaas sighs deeply when asked about the hassles they went through to be allowed to import their insects). They became interested in eating bugs after a holiday in Thailand and decided to start a business that would promote sustainable food sources.
"We thought, 'Why is New Zealand not doing this?'" Genefaas says. "We are supposed to be this clean, green, Godzone, but we are farming all this livestock and that's creating all these problems with the environment. People in other parts of the world are already eating insects, so if New Zealand wants to be truly clean and green, this is where the country needs to go. We need to educate people."
Genefaas says Crawlers' products, which include honey-roasted crickets, milk chocolate-dipped scorpions and barbecue-flavoured grasshoppers alongside cricket flour and gluten-free cricket spaghetti, are treats, not novelties. That said, chocolate-coated tarantulas ($20) are their biggest-seller.
"I think people like to buy something that's got a lot of shock factor, they like to freak out their friends. And that's good for us because we want to shock people. We want bugs to be talked about."
At home, Genefaas regularly adds cricket flour to green smoothies and loves to snack on his brand's flavoured fried insects. He knows there's a long way to go before these ingredients are considered mainstream, but says Crawlers are in it for the long haul.
"We want people to have a really good experience. It's not just about shocking people, we want to educate them. If you'd never cooked kangaroo before you'd still know that you could fry it in a pan like a steak. With insects, we need to give people recipes and show them that you can use deep-fried crickets like croutons on a salad, or add them to black beans and lentils. We want to show people that they can be part of the solution."
The Gateway Bug screens as part of the architecture and design film festival in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin between May and July.
See resene.co.nz/filmfestival for more details.