Chefs, scientists and food engineers look to the past and to the future in the race to find viable, sustainable and enjoyable alternatives to conventional animal products

People of Yunnan Restaurant is a small eatery on a quiet side street in Hong Kong’s San Po Kong district, and may seem an unlikely place to taste the future of food. But this casual dining spot, specialising in traditional cuisine from the south-western Chinese province of its name, serves what many are hailing as a solution to world hunger and the harmful effects of livestock farming: edible insects.

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Above Fried bee pupae, silk worm pupae and bamboo worms at People Of Yunnan Restaurant (Photo: People Of Yunnan Restaurant)

Born in Yunnan but raised in Hong Kong, chef Li Qing and his wife opened the restaurant in 2005, to introduce locals to Yunnan-style noodles. Li began serving fried cicada, grasshoppers and other bugs as a gimmick, but soon found customers seeking them out – and not only for their novelty, but for their healthful and medicinal properties. “If food becomes scarce, people will turn to insects because they are healthy, clean and nutritious,” Li says, over a serving of fried bee pupae, silkworm pupae and bamboo worms tossed with salt, chilli and a dash of Sichuan pepper. “It will become like the old days, when we kept them in our pockets and ate them as a snack.”

Li might be on to something: a typical mealworm provides the same protein, vitamins and minerals as fish and meat, and more unsaturated omega-3 and fatty acids than cattle and pigs. What’s more, thanks to a growing body of research into food security and the environmental impact of the livestock and fisheries industries, insects are emerging as a potential alternative to conventional animal protein.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has stated that current food production will almost need to double to accommodate the nine billion people projected to be on the planet by 2050. According to a report published by the FAO in 2013, “Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are over-fished 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 one billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”

For some, including Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based producer of meat-like but plant-based food products, that means completely replacing animal protein with plant protein. The company’s Beyond Burger uses peas for protein, beets for colour, and coconut oil and potato starch for juiciness and chew, resulting in a burger so meat-like that it’s sold alongside the real thing at retailers. 

Plant-based foods maker Hampton Creek Foods, based in San Francisco, has a Just line of mayonnaise, dressings and cookie dough concocted entirely from plant-derived ingredients. Also in San Francisco, cellular agriculture company Perfect Day Foods makes milk without the help of cows (using yeast and fermentation). In Germany, food technologists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging have extracted protein from sweet blue lupine seeds to make a milk-tasting ice cream.

"To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today...and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated." — Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Not everyone, however, is prepared to give up their beloved ribeye and roast chicken, and that’s where people like Uma Valeti come in. “The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions,” the co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats has said. The food technology company he heads up, also headquartered in San Francisco, aims to grow sustainable cultured meat. “We want the world to keep eating what it loves. However, the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health.” 

The answer, claims Valeti (alongside a growing body of scientists, entrepreneurs and high-profile investors), is “clean meat”, or meat engineered directly from animal cells, thereby doing away with the need to feed, breed or slaughter animals. Memphis Meats made the world’s first clean meatball in 2016, and first clean poultry in 2017, joining others such as Dutch company Mosa Meat, which unveiled the first lab-grown burger in 2013, and Finless Foods, also headquartered in San Francisco, which is developing seafood products using similar cellular technologies.

Most experts agree, however, that it will be at least five years before clean meat is available. In the meantime, food researchers and pioneering chefs are looking to the estimated 1,900 species of insects that are already being eaten by two billion people worldwide. These “stupendously efficient meat machines”, as described by entrepreneur and edible-insects expert Harman Singh Johar, require significantly less space, water and feed than cattle. They can also be found in a wide variety of habitats, are capable of being processed into granular or paste forms, and may pose less risk of transferring disease than mammals and birds. 

“A lot of ingredients these days have additives, but not insects because they are just caught and frozen,” explains chef Li of People of Yunnan Restaurant in Hong Kong, who sources his insects from Yunnan. “They are also very clean because what they eat – plants, bamboo, corn – is very clean.” Li uses traditional methods when preparing bugs, such as deep-frying grasshoppers to make their hard shells easier to consume, and lightly frying creamy bamboo worms before mixing them into an omelette. 

“The biggest discovery in our research is that insects represent such a large diversity, and that such a vast range of cultures have insects deeply embedded in their food habits,” says Michael Bom Frøst, director of the non-profit Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, and co-author of the book On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes, released in May 2017.

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Above Bee larvae ceviche (Photo: On Eating Insects)

From the roasted witchetty grubs (“nutty, really nutty,” says Frøst) consumed in a remote community of Australia’s Northern Territory to enormous fried crickets tossed with onions and salt (“the head reminiscent of lamb brains”) in a village in Eastern Uganda, Frøst and his team have sampled a dizzying array of creepy-crawlies. And they’re not alone in championing insects for more than their nutritional and environmental benefits. “I use insects because they taste delicious,” insists Enrique Olvera, whose upscale eatery Pujol, in Mexico City, ranked 20th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list. “I’m not trying to make any particular statement, but to cook good food with ingredients that I love.”

Olvera says that in Mexico, insects are most commonly used in salsas, tacos or mixed with salt to accompany mescal and other drinks. He is one of several chefs there who are elevating bugs from street-stall fare to sophisticated fine dining, and his flair for distilling “the taste of terroir” can be experienced in his dish of baby corn with chicatana ant mayonnaise, inspired by a favourite rainy afternoon snack, and a seasonal dish of escamole (queen-ant eggs, dubbed “Mexican caviar”) sautéed with onion, garlic and chilli, and served with roasted leek and a bone-marrow confit.

On the other side of the planet, in the Thai capital Bangkok, chef Thitiwat “Mai” Tantragarn has teamed up with fashion designer Khun Lim to introduce entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) to the city’s middle and upper classes. Lim is the entrepreneurial brains behind the ChangChui creative complex in Bangkok, and owner of the Insects in the Backyard restaurant there. “Exploration of edible insects as cuisine has been relatively recent and evolved out of the vision and passion of Lim,” Thitiwat says. “If they are taken out of the familiar rural context and made ‘haute cuisine’, Bangkokians can see edible insects through new eyes. It becomes upscale and fashionable.”

Drawing on American, French, Italian and Mediterranean flavours, but with emphasis on regional ingredients, Thitiwat’s menu boasts such dishes as crab and giant water beetle ravioli with turmeric saffron sauce, and Green Goddess wild green salad with pan-fried crickets and grasshoppers. “We don’t expect that insects will become a significant part of the majority of people’s diet,” the chef says, “but it has a much lower carbon footprint than animal protein. Finding ways to introduce it into the culinary portfolio of chefs and a growing segment of the population could have considerable impact.”

Indeed, few expect a single solution to the challenge of feeding the global population, but wider acceptance of everything from edible insects to test-tube burgers could herald a revolution in how we think about food. “I believe that in 30 years or so, we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone,” Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group (and an early backer of Memphis Meats), wrote on his company’s website in August 2017. “One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.” 

This story originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Ambrosia, the official magazine of the International Culinary Institute

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