Benin, Costa Rica and Bhutan are promoting, in a joint campaign, meals with insects as the main ingredient. Larvae and spiders are also on the menu of some chic restaurants. The Netherlands is funding the campaign.
Why would a shrimp be more appetising than a ladybug? Why are eels a delicacy and worms not considered edible except in case of dire need? According to experts, it is just a matter of culture and psychology.
The National Institute for Biodiversity in Costa Rica, INBio, is participating in a survey on the consumption of insects. Two countries have also joined in: Benin in Africa and Bhutan in Asia.
The investigation focuses on edible forest products, such as insects and fungi. In Benin, there is significant knowledge on the consumption of insects. Bhutan is taking part because of its extensive knowledge on mushrooms. Costa Rica's contribution to the project comes with its expertise in the field of biodiversity.
The entomologist Manuel Zumbado, who heads the project at INBio, explains the role of the Netherlands in this project:
"I do not know all the details, but the Netherlands funded the project and its realisation were presented to three other countries."
Beetle larvae skewers
Costa Rican experts went to Benin for their research. They found out that there, the consumption of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, beetle larvae and moth larvae, was the most normal thing in the world.
Beetle larvae are found in palm leaves. These same leaves are used by the people of Benin to make wine. When a palm tree dies, it is invaded by beetles. Manuel Zumbado has tasted beetle larvae skewers:
"They got back from the forest with a piece of palm tree. They opened it and a lot of larvae came out of it. They cleaned them up and prepared them just like we would do with shrimps. Some fried them in oil, while others roast them on fire. The larvae were thread onto skewers: one larva, a piece of onion, again larva and so on. They were served on banana leaves accompanied by a delicious spicy sauce."
Manuel Zumbado says that insects are highly nutritious: they contain little amount of fat and cholesterol and have high quality proteins and micro-nutrients and vitamins. Compared to our normal foods like beef, pork, chicken and fish, they have a a much higher nutritional value.
According to the Costa Rican researcher, it is only a question of habit:
"People think that the consumption of insects boils down to eating raw cockroaches. But it is a misunderstanding. We do not eat chicken covered with feathers either. The preparation, presentation and information about it make the whole difference.”
The consumption of insects is often linked to survival in situations of need. This is why INBio want to stimulate consumption of insects in luxury restaurants. Seeing that it is not cheap products, it will offer a sense of attraction to customers.
In some Latin American countries, people eat insects. In Mexico, for example, consumption of locusts is quite normal. And in Colombia, consumption of ants is as common as that of peanuts back at home.
The great Mexican cook Susana Palazuelos confirms that some luxury hotels have a plateau of grilled insects on their menus, which includes crickets, eggs of red ants and worms.
We know that in Venezuela, the Yanomami Indians eat the theraposa leblondi, the tarantula, that is the largest spider in the world. Similarly in Argentina, there are edible insects which have a high nutritional value. But people do not eat them.
There are about 1,500 kinds of edible insects around the world. But experts warn that some of them are extremely poisonous and that caution is called for.