The Wahaca chain of Mexican street food restaurants put a new special on the menu in January. At £4.25 the dish has a core ingredient many would wince at – crickets. Nevertheless some 1,500 plates a week have been sold at the chain, set up by former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers.
Wahaca has been experimenting with the idea of bringing entomophagy – eating insects – to the high street since 2013 and is now considering whether the crickets will be put on the permanent menu in the restaurants.
Rather than having the insects eaten by diners as a dare or as a gimmick amongst the tacos and quesadillas, marketing manager Oli Ingham said they wanted to raise the issue of sustainability in food production.
The move marks another development in the growing campaign to get foods such as grasshoppers and mealworms accepted onto the western palate in the same way as they are in many developing countries – there insects are salted and eaten as a snack with a beer or can even command prices higher than fillet steak due to the scarcity of some types.
“It is in our nature to eat insects … as they are eaten all around the world,” said Shami Radia, the co-founder of Grub, a London-based company which sells packets of dried mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers and buffalo worms. Working in the aid sector in Malawi, he was given termites sprinkled with chilli and lime to go along with his beer one evening. It gave him the idea to bring edible insects to the UK. “In some ways I can understand it [the reticence]. I really have had a lot of belief in the idea. In the year that we have been trading, it has been proven that there is something in it,” he said.
People in four out of five countries around the world eat insects, said Radia. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that two billion of the world’s population eat insects as part of their normal diet. Their high protein level, low carbon footprint and production cost are frequent arguments used by those lobbying for them to be eaten as part of the Western diet.
Radia and his business partner Neil Whippey set up a series of pop-up restaurant nights in London, changing traditional meats for their products – in one case swapping brown crab for buffalo worms. Traffic to their website, which was launched two years ago to sell packets of the dried insects, jumped as a result.
“It is one of those things that we have learnt. We learn to fear eating insects, it is not something which is inbuilt. In Europe the reason that we don’t eat insects is because of the climate. In all of the other countries it is hot [and] insects are in abundance. It is easy to catch them and they are an easy source of protein,” he said. “You hear the term superfood bandied about but these actually are a superfood in terms of their nutritional qualities.”
Grub has started to supply the Planet Organic chain of supermarkets and also has an agreement with Wahaca to sell crickets sourced in the Netherlands, a country which has had a more progressive attitude to consuming insects, said Radia.
The key to acceptance amongst the public, he said, is to make insects seen as a viable food alternative as opposed to something used in a challenge from “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here”. Crickets, according to Radia, taste like a “nutty shrimp” while buffalo worms are like almonds.
Another company, Ento, is working to create a food kit similar to a Mexican taco set but using insects from which people can make canapés to serve at the start of an evening for six people. Aran Dasan, one of the group behind the idea, said people are often surprised that the taste is not more acute when they first bite in.
“I think a lot of people presume that the strength [of the taste] of the insects is correlated with the strength of the taboo and that is simply not true. A lot of insects have mild savoury flavours, a lot like nuts and sometimes quite yeasty like marmite,” he said.
While many may wince at the idea of eating grasshoppers as part of a meal, the comparison constantly drawn is with sushi, which now sits on supermarket shelves alongside ready-made sandwiches – a development which took years to work, said Radia. “It is just about how it is marketed. It is just about how it is presented to the great British public in smashing those taboos about eating insects,” he said. But at over £10 for a packet of crickets and grasshoppers, Radia admits that they are expensive due to supply limitations.
The way to find acceptance, according to Dasan, is to sell insect products to “foodies” who are willing to experiment and then hope that it trickles down to a more mass market appeal. Ento aims to have products on retail shelves by summer of this year.
“It is all about how you present the food. If you present it as normal food – maybe not as normal as chips, beans and gravy – [but] maybe we start off with it [as a] special occasion food like sushi may have been a couple of years ago. You are not creating the impression in your mind that it is a novelty or a joke,” he said.