Would you swap your bar snacks for a bowl of bugs? I did
By Miles Rowland
The giant ant gives way slightly as I pinch it between my thumb and index finger. About the same size as a pick n’ mix cola bottle, it has sinister, sharp mouthparts and a round, ribbed abdomen. As I pop it in my mouth and bite down, the back end bursts and releases a suspiciously earthy taste. Somewhat appalled, I look down at my second course of grasshoppers and locusts.
Though it might sound like a Bushtucker trial in some corner of the Australian outback, I’m actually sitting in a restaurant in central London. I’ve come here to try out the latest sustainable food craze for myself – edible bugs.
They’ve become a multi-million pound industry around the world in recent years, and are considered a good source of protein that use a fraction of the resources and land required by traditional meat farming.
From the people of Ghana, who rely on termites as a food source during spring, to Sardinia, where the traditional and technically illegal dish casu marzu consists of a sheep’s milk cheese infested with live insect larvae, bugs have been a part of mankind’s diet around the world for millennia. Even back in Ancient Greece, Aristotle was extolling the benefits of harvesting cicadas, while biblical accounts describe how John the Baptist survived in the desert for months at a time eating locusts and honeycomb.
But bugs are yet to go mainstream in the UK, as I’m later reminded by various shocked reactions to my Instagram updates throughout the day.
Having narrowed the options down to just five London locations that serve them, I picked out a couple for the day’s excursion.
Archipelago has made a name for itself as a purveyor of peculiar dishes. Founded some 20 years ago by “a South African guy called Bruce”, it’s the kind of gloomy, spice-scented premises where rubbing the wrong water carafe might bring forth the ghost of Robin Williams’ blue cartoon genie. The waiter hands me a menu printed on the back of an old treasure map. X marks the spot, but would the food hit it?
My friend passes on the python carpaccio, plumping instead for an ostrich steak. For me it’s the ‘Love Bug Salad’ with a side of ants. “Which bugs would you like sir?” I order all of them. The waiter gives me an odd look and returns with a ceramic spoon topped with nine Colombian Queen Leafcutter Ants.
I read afterwards that South Americans refer to them affectionately as “big-ass ants” on account of their bulging abdomens, and that their mandibles are capable of slicing through human skin. With a salty, nutty flavour, they’re the pick of the bugs on offer at Archipelago once you get over the unsettling texture.
Next up was a leaf salad accompanied by locusts, grasshoppers and pupae, all fried with chili and garlic. In truth none have a particularly distinctive flavour – they taste like burnt potato crisps, with added exoskeleton.
A girl from a South Korean party on a nearby table compares the flavour of the locusts to dried shrimps. “We don’t really eat this kind of thing in Korea,” she adds. “Everyone thinks we eat the dog, but we don’t much anymore.” Not wanting to weigh into a more controversial gastronomic debate, I scan the dessert menu, which lists caramelised mealworms and chocolate-coated locusts. They’ve run out of the latter option, though. I’m told they “flew off the shelves”. He’s a real hoot this waiter.
I’m hit by a mist of fish sauce as I enter Lao Café, but there’s only one thing on the menu for me, and that’s “herbal-fried bugs of the day”. Lao people are among the world’s biggest bug eaters - their cuisine includes over 50 different kinds of edible insect, so it’s anyone’s guess what I’ll be eating.
I’m told that it’s silkworms today. My first thought when a bowl of them arrives is how big they are. Even after being wok fried the larger specimens are roughly the length of a baby corn.
“Is he eating…bugs?!” I’ve attracted a curious audience as I bite into a worm. Texture here is a stumbling block. Slightly crispy on the outside, it gives way to a chewy inside, like something in between a soggy Wotsit and a piece of Wrigley’s gum.
The flavour is much more promising, however. A mixture of prawn and turkey, it’s definitely an upgrade on the burnt crisps. A friendly waitress tells me how bugs are normalised as street food in Thailand. As she reminisces fondly about how she used to snack on grasshoppers and beetles cooked on sticks during her childhood, I begin to rethink my initial antipathy towards the bowl in front of me.
After all, as an astute neighbour at Lao Café points out, lobsters were once called ‘cockroaches of the sea’ and only fed to prisoners and servants. Sainsbury’s have begun to stock BBQ flavoured crickets. How soon can it be before we’re unashamedly tucking into bowls of silkworms with a pint of lager?