Countries That Eat Bugs

By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterAug. 11, 2014
By Miriam B. Weiner, Staff WriterAug. 11, 2014, at 8:53 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

Countries That Eat Bugs

Slimy, scary, "the size of a Buick" — we use a lot of terms to describe bugs, but "yummy" isn't usually one of them. We associate insect ingestion with reality television shows like Fear Factor, which week-after-week portrays contestants wolfing down everything from live cockroaches to plump caterpillars. But before you add "eating bugs" to the list of things you'll never ever do, consider this: Insects are actually far more nutritious than other common forms of protein, even fish. For example, 100 grams of top sirloin beef contains about 29 grams of protein in addition to a whopping 21 grams of fat, while 100 grams of grasshopper contains 20 grams of protein and a measly six grams of fat. Big difference! Many scientists believe that entomophagy -- insect eating -- will not only benefit our health, but also the planet. In an interview with The Guardian, Belgian entomologist Arnold van Huis says that farming insects emits 10 times less greenhouse gas than farming livestock.

So why are we so disgusted by the thought of munching on bugs? Pennsylvania State University professor Manfred Kroger tells National Geographic that our eating habits are conditioned by our culture. We see insects as the destroyers of crops and ruin-ers of picnics rather than a food source, while many cultures — primarily in Africa, Asia and South America — rely on creepy-crawlies as their main source of protein. As naturalist, author and "Bug Chef Extraordinaire" David George Gordon tells the Telegraph, "Insects are the most valuable, underused and delicious animals in the world." Here are a few countries that have already hopped on the bug bandwagon:

[See a photo recap of Countries Where They Eat Bugs]

Citizens of Thailand are no strangers to entomophagy. In fact, fried bugs are commonly served with beer (like peanuts at a bar). Once more prevalent in the Northern provinces like Isan, snacking on these vermin is now a regular occurrence in major cities like Bangkok, where vendors sell crispy insects from carts at outdoor markets. One of the country's most popular snacks is Jing Leed, a deep-fried cricket seasoned with Golden Mountain sauce (similar to soy sauce) and pepper. Other favorites include grasshopper, woodworm, bamboo worm and Maeng Da, or 3.5 inch-long water beetles. While most insects sold by Thai street vendors are prepared the same way, each variety is said to have its own distinct flavor.

While we normally consider termites to be a pesky (and costly) household plague, Ghanaians see them as a delicious and nutritious snack. However, in Ghana, eating bugs is much more than a lifestyle choice -- it's a means of survival. Other types of food are often in short supply during the country's spring months, when many Ghanaians are busy planting crops. Luckily, the season's heavy rains force winged termites to flee their underground homes. The termites are high in proteins, fats and oils, all of which are needed for a healthy, well-balanced diet. The insects can be fried, roasted and even ground into flour for baking purposes.

You probably won't find any creepy-crawlies at your local cantina, but insects have been a staple in Mexican cuisine for centuries. And these days, you'll find that they suit just about every taste. French-fried caterpillars offer a satisfying crunch, while ant eggs are served with so much butter that even Julia Child would approve. Chocolate-covered locusts and candy-covered worms make getting your daily dose of protein oh-so sweet. If the thought of consuming insects still makes you queasy, take some time to drink it in down in Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico), where a potent alcohol called mezcal is served with a "worm" — the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis — submerged in the glass.

To us, bugs are nature's practical joke. But in China, they're considered delicacies. The Chinese snack on a wide variety of insects, from water bugs boiled and then soaked vinegar to live scorpions doused in baijiu, a robust liquor. While Chinese citizens eat all sorts of insects, the country's finer restaurants tend to serve its delicacies in the larval state. Chinese gourmands enjoy roasted bee larvae and fried silkworm moth larvae, which are both rich in nutrients like copper, iron, riboflavin, thiamin and zinc. And when temperatures begin to drop, the Chinese keep warm with a steaming bowl of ant soup. 

The Chinese aren't the only people who like ants; in Brazil, içás, or queen ants, are a favorite snack. Although ants were once eaten only by poorer citizens, this tradition is now celebrated. Every October and November, these massive winged ants emerge from underground to the delight of the residents of Silveiras, a small town in southwest Brazil. Here, they collect the ants, remove their wings and fry 'em up (or dip them in chocolate). There's even an arts and crafts center devoted to the içá-eating tradition, where you'll find everything from dishes to aprons featuring images of the beloved bug. Are you wondering why içás are so popular? Silveiras' townspeople claim that they taste just like mint.

Although the trend hasn't really caught on in the more urban areas, many of Australia's indigenous cultures eat insects for protein. Back in the day, preparing creepy-crawly cuisine was a painstaking process: The Aborigines cooked moths in the sand, stirring in hot ashes to help remove the bugs' wings and the legs. Today, Oz's native societies still thrive on insects like honey-pot ants — which use their bodies as a portable pantry — and witchetty grubs, or large, wood-eating moth larvae. Roasted witchetty grub has a crispy skin with a yellowy filling that's said to taste a little like almonds.

Bugs have been a staple of Japan's cuisine for centuries due to their abundance. In fact, during rough agricultural and economic times, insects were the main means of survival for many rural populations. Today, bugs are becoming a more common sight on Japanese menus: Restaurants all over the country serve up hearty portions of hachi-no-ko (boiled wasp larvae), sangi (fried silk moth pupae) and zaza-mushi (aquatic insect larvae). The Japanese also enjoy munching on fully grown insects such as semi (fried cicada) and inago (fried grasshopper). And though noshing on insects is still a little taboo here — particularly in the cities — many Japanese people are beginning to broaden their culinary horizons.

The Netherlands is one of the few European nations beginning to embrace entomophagy. While Dutch insect breeders face a barrier of Western criticism, gourmands like Johan Van Dongen — head of the meat department for the food distributor Sligro, believes that once people learn to sink their teeth in, they'll never go back. The New York Times wrote an article about Van Dongen's efforts to convert his fellow countrymen: He set up tasting stands offering passers-by samples of whole insects as well as chocolate infused with ground mealworms. "When they see the bugs, they’ve already eaten them in the chocolate," Van Dongen tells the Times. "Some people scream, ‘Oh, my God!’ But if you do it once, then you do it twice."

Eating bugs is now part of the challenge of participating in reality TV shows like Survivor and Fear Factor. But believe it or not, bugs are being consumed on our own home turf when the cameras are off. If you own red lipstick or have ever snacked on red candy, chances are that you've ingested cochineal, an insect native to South America that is used to produce red dye. Bugs are also becoming prevalent in sweets. Many candy shops like Hotlix in Pismo Beach, California, are famous for selling chocolate-covered ants and cricket lollipops. It comes as no surprise that children welcome the concept of entomophagy with open arms, and with such sweet treats at hand, it might be time for us adults to follow suit.

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