On Eating Insects

19 Mar

Not the Most Drinkable...

So Z and I have eaten our first round of insects on this journey — in Vientiane, Laos. Baby crickets, deep-fried to a quite delectable crunchiness, flavoured with lashings of fish sauce, accompanied by crispy kaffir lime leaves and curls of frazzled lemongrass.

They are, in his words, “Quite nice, actually.” I’d go one better. Like crispy baby shrimp, with notes of chicken and pork crackling, they are, honestly, rather moreish.

If only I could switch off the cultural taboos about the way they look. For Z, they are just another thing you eat. To me, they are bugs. Ergo taboo.

Food is, with the infinitely debatable exception of sex, the single area where ingrained taboos still rule, at least among adults, in every single culture I’ve encountered.

Fermented food products are an obvious example. Think stinky tofu, a ripe and pungent fine French cheese, Asian fish sauces, a well-hung grouse, an acidic Cabrales, or, for that matter, a thoroughly aged Bordeaux.

All delicacies on their home turf. All regarded with deep suspicion in regions where rotten fish, or rotten milk – to take the most obvious examples — are not a part of culinary culture but a sign of poisons, to be eliminated.

The faecal, sweaty, feety, over-ripe, rotten, pungent scents of, essentially, decay (and the complex way they interact with flavours) are, for sound evolutionary reasons, a source of panic to the untrained brain. But it’s amazing how experience transforms that gut response.

There is, I think, at least as much complexity in the range of Asian fish condiments as there is in European cheeses, and far, far more than in olive oil, and I wish my palate understood the nuances enough to get beyond the lighter flavours.

One of the striking things about Vietnamese cuisine on its home turf, rather than the versions you enjoy in expat ventures overseas, is the sheer range of fish sauces. There are regional specialities. Prized manufacturers. Levels and types of fermentation, of which I can only scratch the surface. Entire shops devoted to them. But, despite the French colonial influence, so far no DOC.

Another is the fondness for snails. Vietnam has, I think, a much wider, and much more excitingly treated range of snails than France, or Spain. There’s a dish of leopard snails in a thick coconut sauce which connects quite closely to Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge; large, apple snails minced with pork and lemongrass then returned to their shells; and the richly spiced jumping snails that almost every street corner seems to sell on special occasions, but which I never had the space to try.

fish sauces, Laos

Fish Sauces, Laos

In Laos, which is more confident than Cambodia in its cuisine, even the most down-at-heel vendor of feu/foe (like Vietnamese pho, but unlike Thai kuaytiaw, a noodle soup to which you add both vegetables and condiments yourself) offers at least two fish sauces (one the sludgy, pungent scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, another what rises to the top).

And, yes, the sludgy stuff is at least as scary to the uninitiated as a pungent Cabrales or ripe Reblochon.

Another area where taboo still operates is in what one will, and will not, consume uncooked, and where a cure or marinade crosses over into cooking. There’s a Laotian street dish of cured pork and pork rind strips in banana leaves which seemed, to my Western palate, erm, a little on the young side.

I could appreciate the taste aesthetics of the thin strips of salty, very lightly cured pork rind, perfectly. Yet the Judaeo-Christian taboo on undercooked pork (and, yes, I know there’s science on undercooked pork, but there’s science on raw fish, too, and that doesn’t stop us) meant it didn’t quite compute.

Anywise, back to the crickets. Z wasn’t entirely keen on the idea, which shows that the “insects are dirty” taboo still holds.

Yet, while I could rationalise them as really not dissimilar to marine crustaceans such as shrimp, which, but for the wings and the colour, they aren’t, I couldn’t quite bring myself to look at them as I ate.

Partly, I guess, because you eat them whole, and that old taboo against eating things that look at you, so memorably summarized by Paul McCartney, still holds. But largely because they’re, well, bugs.

Is there anything you categorically would never eat? What are your personal food taboos?

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7 Responses to “On Eating Insects”

  1. ribbonsuntied at 1:30 pm #

    Bugs and organs. Ewww. And whatever it is in that jar up top!!

    • MummyT at 9:02 am #

      That is, I believe, for drinking! I assume, like the bearpaw stuff, it is for the chaps, to enhance their virility…

  2. nicole curry at 8:52 pm #

    The boys recently had crickets and thought they were pretty good… i just wrote blog about the taboo of foods dog inparticular:)

    • MummyT at 8:55 am #

      I liked crickets, too. I think when insects stay on the menu, rather than being reserved as last-ditch sustenance for times of trouble, they tend to taste pretty good…

  3. itsasmallworldafterallfamily at 6:37 pm #

    What a great post, full of interesting information. My little boy will love all this stuff when we get to Asia. He’s already eaten giant ants coated in chocolate and a scorpion in toffee. He actually gets off on the fact that they’re bugs, and he’s doing something that make others go “ewww”. I’ve always been fascinated by those vats of fermenting fish you see in Thailand, they look absolutely disgusting, yet the finished article makes food taste so good.

    PS I’ve added you to my blog roll so I can keep up to date with your travels.

    • MummyT at 6:41 am #

      Oooh! Thank you for that… Looking forward to seeing how your plans develop very, very much…

  4. Stacey at 7:46 am #

    Good for you for trying the bugs! I could never get myself in the mood.. I know that anything fried, spiced and crunchy is good.. and Lobsters do look like giant bugs, so much so that I had trouble eating them!

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