There’s no denying the superpowers of the newest ‘superfood’, which in fact is ancient in origin. Widely eaten across the non-Western world, insects are packed with protein, and their production (feeding, gathering) has a considerably lighter impact on the environment than their warm-blooded counterparts. Somewhat easily foraged – in comparison to raising your own livestock, let’s say – hunting your own insects is also easy on the pocket. There are many cases as to why this overlooked and vastly versatile ingredient is the ideal future food. But practising Cape Town based entomophagist Zayaan Khan brings an alternative outlook to the table. A staunch supporter of the movement towards food sovereignty, she hopes that the inevitable rise in insect production and farming will bring with it the opportunity to reassess the industrialisation, waste and ethics of our current food systems. She’s infectiously passionate about treating insects, along with indigenous flowers and plants, as food instead of as just a supplement; about experimenting with flavour and roasting, fermenting, grinding and frying to find each ingredient’s height of deliciousness.
I have started fermenting some insects but generally the best way is a simple roast.
Please let us know about your particular approach to entomophagy?
I think it’s important to see true value in ingredients, my entomophagy exploration is much more than a trend in isolating its nutritional value. ¬†My favourite part of food is the experimenting, succeeding, failing and understanding why. ¬†Even though it is an ancient practice, it is a new realm of knowledge for me, especially because insects are infinite – there are so many kinds and thus so many flavour profiles. And their cooking time varies so much. When cooking an ant egg the¬†difference between 1 and 3¬†minutes can intensify the¬†flavour quite¬†dramatically. It’s here too that there’s space for collaboration, for more people to try, and be¬†captivated by possibility. ¬†I often ask people if they have eaten insects before and generally people say no.¬† I then¬†ask them if they ate those red lollipops as¬†children, the ones with the wrappers with different animals on them. That red colourant is from the Cochineal beetle and so you have eaten insects, you just didn’t know it.
What are the different ways people can find insects to eat? (hunting, foraging, sourcing, buying)
Down in the Cape you can source some from pet stores but for variety you have to hunt for your own. ¬†It is in the hunting process that your awareness and understanding of this realm of indigenous food¬†expands. My first real hunt came when there was a so-called plague of crickets in early 2014 in the Southern Cape. It reached far out into the province and I had people inviting me from all over. As soon as I went to these various spots to collect the insects they had completely disappeared – they knew I was coming for them. I did manage to catch one whole batch which I transformed into many different tasty experiments.¬† It’s possible to import them too. ¬†Wherever you get them from, always blanch them before cooking to kill off any possible parasite that may be detrimental to your health.
We must be cautious in this exploration and perhaps treat it as a collaboration between chefs, scientists, farmers and artists.
Mopani worms are popularly eaten in South Africa but what are some lesser known edible insects?
Hmmm, there are some insects that are pure ‘survival’ food. It’s difficult to make them taste good but they are not inedible or poisonous. An insect not many people know is edible is the stink bug, also known as the shield bug. It is usually green and is supposed to taste of apples.¬† I have yet to eat one though and the preparation of them is intensive.
Something very popular overseas, perhaps because of the work of the Nordic Food Lab, is eating ants. The first insects I ever ate were termites and found them to definitely be¬†flavourful. ¬†If an ant nest is found and some eggs or larvae are taken and roasted, those are also really good. Our Christmas Beetles, in the north known as June Bugs, also taste good and their texture is easier for people to handle as they are a crunch as opposed to a mush.
There are so many insects (and of¬†course plants) whose potential as food we have yet to discover. Locally what¬†interests me is the link between language and the names we give certain plants and insects, perhaps it’s a clue into their use. There is so much possibility for innovation in this realm. We must be cautious in this exploration and perhaps treat it as a collaboration between chefs, scientists, farmers and artists.
What are some ways you prepare insects and some of the dishes you make with them?
This is my favourite part of food, after the growing or producing of it, the transformation.¬† I have started fermenting some insects but generally the best way is a simple roast.¬† For me this brings out true flavours and develops the profiles to perfection.¬† This way also makes it easier to cut flavours together (like roasted mealworm and salted homemade honey butter) without becoming too¬†overwhelming.¬† These days I end up treating each insect as a whole meal, a taster and an experiment in different ways.¬† For example, I roast and eat wax moth larva as is as it has such a unique flavour, you almost don’t want to mess with it.
What are the health, financial, or other benefits of consuming insects?
It depends on how you access the insects, if you¬†forage them well then you gain a greater¬†awareness of your surroundings and spend more time outdoors, especially early in the mornings. ¬†Insects are highly nutritious, high in proteins, iron and calcium. They are¬†delicious and¬†have specific flavours which change¬†according to what they feed on. There is little waste, you tend to eat most of the insect – in fact if it doesn’t bother you, you can eat them whole. When I began eating insects I would feel a difference in my constitution, it’s difficult to describe but coupled with changing my diet completely to include more ferments, my health has changed quite drastically. I’m much stronger than I was. There is also something to be said for consuming more chitin than I used to. Chitin is found in insects but also in some fruits and vegetables and mushrooms. In insects it is very available but needs to be cooked before being consumed. The indigenous food revival now needs more scientists involved to help us quantify the things we feel.
I am always on the lookout for trees oozing resins, for plants coming into blossom or fruit, for possible herbarium specimens, for nectars or saps, for pollens and stocks, all sorts of things really.
How do you feel about the buzz about insects as the next ‘superfood’?
On the one hand the buzz is so important because it gets an interest and spreads information. Media always sensationalises things which is so misleading because now all we hear about is how much protein insects contain, as if that’s all they contain. Insects are dense with nutrition but only if you eat enough of them.¬† The most¬†important thing though is that they are¬†delicious, their flavour is unique and their¬†texture is too. When you deal with food these are very important¬†aspects to ingredients, this is where the passion for food lies and how chefs and cooks will be able to innovate with these indigenous and traditional ingredients. The important thing left out is¬†that this is not a new food, insects have long been eaten. We are¬†pushing for a¬†revival purely to evoke biodiversity of our food system.¬† It¬†shouldn’t matter that insects are high in this nutrient or dense in that, we should be eating a variety of different foods that will allow a more holistic nutrition.
Please share your thoughts on insect farming?
Insect farming is an easy way to provide insects as a food source but I feel it should not be industrialised.¬† I heard someone talking on the radio about Rainbow Crickets (like Rainbow Chicken). That would be catastrophic for me, and the food sovereignty movement at large. Industrialisation is really not the answer for the so-called food crisis. ¬†There is no food crisis, the world produces more than enough food. Although a lot of it is highly processed and chemical. Insect farming should be kept at a small scale to empower more people to have sustained social livelihoods and the insects should be kept in conditions similar to their natural¬†habitats.
What are some other ingredients you look out for when foraging and how do you use these?
I am always on the lookout for trees oozing resins, for plants coming into blossom or fruit, for possible herbarium specimens, for nectars or saps, for pollens and stocks, all sorts of things really. ¬†I use them for food mostly but medicine is probably my second biggest use.¬† I do all kinds of things with foraged ingredients; blends for smoking, blends for spices or marinades, teas, imphepho (liquorice plant), ferments, dyes, it’s kind of endless really. Cape Town is small so it’s easy to be mindful of what is growing where and how, and to keep passing recognisable plants by along daily routes. To watch these plants yearly is familial, they give an extra sense of home. Your eyes and senses adapt to be aware of them.