By Sumana Mukherjee
In May this year, the Nordic Food Lab received a €500,000 grant from the non-profit Velux Foundation. Titled ‘Discerning Taste: Deliciousness as an Argument for Entomophagy’, their project has a single goal: to make insects palatable to the Western diner. While other researchers will be looking into the environmental and nutritional aspects of eating insects, the charter of the Nordic Food Lab—a think tank set up by renowned Danish chef René Redzepi and his partner in the two-Michelin star restaurant Noma, Claus Meyer—is to convert the creepy crawlies’ ‘yuck’ factor into a ‘yum’.
The effort is the latest step of a long, diversified campaign to introduce the Western palate to newer, more sustainable foods. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation released a book called Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. “By 2050,” FAO official Eduardo Rojas-Briales and Wageningen University’s Ernst van den Ende wrote, “the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce... oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. We need to find new ways of growing food.”
And one of those ways is validation of an ancient, non-Western food-source: insects. Of the 1 million varieties, some 1,900—including beetles, caterpillars, bees, crickets, grasshoppers, ants and wasps—are part of the traditional diets of South America, Africa and Asia (and no one is known to have died of them). They are acknowledged to be rich in protein, fat, vitamin, fibre and minerals. And if you’re still turning up your nose at the idea of a crunchy grasshopper on your plate, ‘consider the lobster’. In a 2004 essay headlined just that in Gourmet magazine, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace wrote, “Up until sometime in the 1800s... lobster [basically giant sea insects] was low-class food, eaten only by the poor and the institutionalised”; having it on the table was akin to “making people eat rats”.
From punishment dinner to posh delicacy is quite a shift. Will the ant and the grasshopper take the same route to the mainstream menu? Unlikely as it may seem, a quick search on Amazon.com throws up several relevant cookbook titles (including Creepy Crawly Cuisine, Entertaining with Insects, Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and the misleadingly romantic Cooking with Cicadas). They may not be making the bestseller lists just yet, but if human history teaches us one lesson, it’s never to say never.
“It’s not part of my tradition to eat insects, but I absolutely respect it,” says the Italian-born Giorgio Locatelli of the Michelin-star winning Locanda Locatelli, London, and Ronda Locatelli, Dubai. “They are a natural resource and, in this day and age, we need to be prepared to accept alternative methods—especially if they prove themselves to be less harmful to the environment.”
Having built their careers and reputations on the back of sourcing some of the world’s finest ingredients, frontline chefs and food ideators are perhaps the ones with the most to lose should the doomsday prognosticators prove to be right. At present, there’s little to indicate they won’t be. A 2010 UN study says more than 50 per cent of the world’s crops feed cattle, not people. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s freshwater consumption and 38 per cent of its land use. Add to the mix just one factor: economic prosperity. And it sets in motion a trend of higher meat consumption (an established aspirational food), greater fossil fuel emissions, more Westernised diets—all of which translate into more pressure on natural resources. Where on earth will the best beef come from if deforestation in South America, for instance, affects rainfall and the grasslands that feed the cattle?
Corresponding with chefs across the world to answer this question, I was struck by the similarity of their responses. Yes, there’s a problem, they admitted. But yes, there were also solutions. “We are a creative bunch and I don’t think we’ll ever run out of ideas!” says Atul Kochhar, widely regarded as one of the best Indian chefs in the UK. “We like to push the boundaries and it’s natural to look to invent new taste sensations. Science comes into the picture as well and new cooking techniques open up new possibilities. For instance, I could have never thought of [the possibilities of] sous-vide at the start of my career.”
Not surprisingly though, science is rarely the first fallback for the creative thinker. “I like to think that we don’t have to employ science in every aspect of our food’s future,” says Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian born, Swedish-bred owner of nine restaurants across New York and Sweden, who was behind President Barack Obama’s state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009. “I tend to look at other cultures and get lessons on how they eat. Asian cultures, for example, employ lots of flavour and spices, thereby satiating the palate and eliminating the need to eat a lot. We need to think about better cuts of meat and better ingredients— and this doesn’t have to be expensive. By using less of a better product, we’d probably spend the same amount in the long run but it works better for our bodies. And it never hurts to go meatless at least once a week—you’ll be surprised the positive impact it has on your health and the environment.”
First world solutions, one might think. But consider this: as of last year, India is the largest exporter of beef in the world. And beef is not just meat; invisible on the plate are the energy, water, land and human resources expended on rearing cattle. If the world were to heed Samuelsson’s advice and cut back on the meat, the market economics in India would be certain to take a hit. But, in the long run, the chef’s prediction of a positive impact on the environment would probably come true.
... “Over the next 20 years, I think what will come into their own are the foods frequently relegated to the poor man’s lot,” says acclaimed Delhi-based chef Manish Mehrotra. “I am excited by sattu, the Bihari staple. It is ritually snubbed by the landed classes as the labourer’s food, but it is cheap and extremely nutritious. Another food that gets the short shrift is the makhana, the starchy white seeds of an aquatic plant common across the northern and eastern lowlands of Northern India. Then there’s bamboo, jute leaves, ker-sangri (dried dessert beans and leaves), gongura and kinema, a fermented soybean popular in the Eastern Himalayas as a meat substitute, packed with proteins, vitamins and minerals.”
Manu Chandra, executive chef and partner at three of Bangalore’s hottest restaurants, on his part, has put much of this into practice. When leading Australian food TV personality Matt Preston came visiting Olive Beach in 2010—a dinner at which I was present— Chandra presented a remarkable European menu fashioned completely from indigenous Indian ingredients, including a creamy drumstick velouté and a ravioli with the humble bathua (L. Chenopodium album) and charmagaz (a mix of four seeds, usually of the pumpkin, muskmelon, watermelon and cucumber). It’s a faith that remains strong today. “India will see a resurgence in domestic ingredients. Amaranth (seeds) will triumph quinoa yet,” Chandra says, referring to the South American pseudo-grain that’s flying off local supermarket shelves despite the exorbitant import price. “There’s so much ‘exotic’ still unexplored (in our own country) that looking Westward makes little sense in the long run. It will also allow better control over quality, freshness and the honesty of the food, over being beholden to importers and food Nazis who play the economies-of-scale game. This approach will also open up completely new ranges in tastes and flavours, which are important.”
To read more about the future of food, pick up your copy of this month’s Forbes Life India. Firstpost is owned by Network 18, which also owns Forbes Life India.
Updated Date: Jul 19, 2013 16:53 PM