The United Nations wants you to eat more bugs. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is tasked with fighting world hunger and food insecurity, and in 2013, they released a report with a fairly simple conclusion: eating bugs could solve a lot of our problems, especially in the poorer parts of the world.
Insects are high in protein, have a very low environmental impact in comparison to other protein sources, and rearing insects for human consumption is low tech, easy to do, and requires little investment.
The biggest problem in making bug eating (also known as entomophagy) popular in the West is that there’s a pretty huge taboo around eating bugs, and it’s reflected in our culture – shows like Survivor and Fear Factor portray entomophagy as a pretty grotesque form of torture, and in our dystopias, bug-eating is either totally bypassed in favor of cannibalism (as in the 1973 classic Soylent Green, where the citizens of an overpopulated earth are fed their dead friends and neighbors) or is made to seem just as bad as cannibalism (as in 2013’s Snowpiercer, where a character is about as emotionally devastated at the memory of having eaten babies for survival as he was when he discovered the protein bars he’d been eating were made of cockroaches. Real cheery movie, Snowpiercer).
This equivalency is, of course, ridiculous – many people find eating insects to be gross, but will not blink at eating shrimp, oysters, or lobsters, which are all basically extra-slimy water bugs. Insects are healthy, can be delicious, and we’ve been eating them for as long as we’ve been a species. Food taboos aren’t always rational, but they are extremely difficult to overcome, and in the U.S. and most of Europe, if you’re eating a bug, you’re either part of a very small niche, or you’re doing it on a dare.
But much of the world lacks our squeamishness: the UN still estimates that 2 billion people worldwide supplement their diets with insects. They’re food staples in parts of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. Oaxacan cuisine in particular is known for its use of insects, and the culture has developed some pretty tasty dishes. Go to just about any market in Oaxaca, and you’ll find tables filled with heaping baskets of chapulines (grasshoppers) – a favorite local snack.
Ezequiel Hernandez, the chef and owner of Campobaja in Mexico City, comes from a Oaxacan background, and thinks that even in Mexico, there’s still a stigma. “Bugs have been ‘poor people food’ for a long time, so it was looked down upon because it is what farmers and small village people ate,” he says. “When big chefs started looking back at traditional gastronomy, bugs started getting trendy again, so [entomophagy is] growing fast in the interest of the food industry. But, then again, we haven’t broken the cultural barrier to the mainstream population.” He believes, though, that it’s only a matter of time because the “trend worldwide is looking back to our roots to prepare food, and bugs are almost universally part of those roots.”
For his part, Hernandez has a few suggestions for how to get into bugs, and they’re pretty simple: “Most of the recipes are super basic based on the resources that were available to the communities who originally prepared them. I come from a Oaxacan family, so I’ve grown up eating crickets, worms and ants and I love them.” If you’re drinking, he suggests not eating your bugs by putting worms into the mezcal (“It ruins both”), but instead, making an insect-based munchie. “Crickets boiled, then fried with garlic, lemon, dried chilies, and hoja santa make a mean drinking snack.”
If you’re still not sold, well, it may not matter: Daniella Martin, an entomophagy expert, wrote in her 2014 book Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet that the people at her cooking demonstrations who are most into eating bugs are kids. “These kids aren’t eating bugs for the shock effect,” she writes. “They’re not doing it for photos they can post on their Facebook pages. They’re doing it because the bugs taste good and because the idea that bugs are bad hasn’t yet solidified in their as yet unsocialized, unossified minds.”
As economic and environmental pressures add up, bugs may become a central fixture in global cuisine whether you’re on board or not: to your kids, you could look like the rare holdout today who still refuses to try sushi.