Bug food boom in Japan

No need to raid a hive: Hachinoko, or bee larvae, comes in a can. - The Yomiuri Shimbun

Insect cuisine provides more than a shock.

Restaurante Absente, a cafe and bar in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, recently launched a new pasta dish: peperoncino with locust.

Domestic locust, known as inago in Japanese, is boiled with a hot, sweet soya sauce and sprinkled over garlic and pepper pasta.

Its texture is similar to river shrimp, and it’s seasoned to taste like a familiar pasta topping.

After attempts to create a unique, attention-grabbing dish, the head chef, who used to eat inago in his hometown in Nagano Prefecture, and other employees came up with the recipe. The ¥1,200 (RM40) plate, 20 of which are prepared each day, sells out quickly.

“People who have never eaten inago before say it’s tasty,” owner Takaharu Keicho said.

Restaurante Absente owner Takaharu Keicho shows off his Peperoncino with inago dish. – The Yomiuri Shimbun

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s report titled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” released in May, more than 1,900 insect species including beetles, bees and caterpillars are eaten worldwide. Furthermore, their nutritional value is high, as they are rich in protein, fat, calcium and iron. They require little feed and emit less greenhouse gases in cultivation than typical livestock. The FAO encourages the use of insects in cooking and animal feed as part of its efforts to fight hunger.

Japan has a long history of insect consumption, especially in the Shinshu and Tohoku regions, as a high-quality protein. Even today, hachinoko (bee larvae) and inago are listed in the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s “Standard Tables of Food Composition in Japan”.

Tsukahara Shinshu Chinmi is a shop specialising in rare delicacies established 70 years ago in Ina, Nagano Prefecture. It sells boiled hachinoko, inago, zazamushi (stonefly larvae) and silkworm chrysalis seasoned with soya sauce and sugar.

“These items are nutritious and healthy, and they’re popular among elderly people,” said Shinya Tsukahara, the third-generation owner of the shop. He said he sells live inago every autumn as they are a popular choice for home cooking.

In his store, sales of insect-based delicacies have risen over the last couple of years and got an additional boost from the FAO’s report. Tsukahara now receives orders from around the country, he said.

The number of venues offering such foods is also increasing. Every month, a cafe in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, holds an insect cuisine fair organised by Konchu Ryori Kenkyukai (insect cuisine research group). The June menu featured a silkworm chrysalis bowl. It costs ¥2,000 (RM66) to participate, and some people attend every month. The study group exchanges information and researches the cultivation of insects for food and animal feed.

Rikkyo University professor Kenichi Nonaka, who studies insect cuisine, remarked: “Cooking the insects is time-consuming, and some people find it disgusting. I understand that. Nevertheless, (experimenting with) insect cuisine provides us with an opportunity to experience the process behind how natural creatures become foodstuff. I also think it’s important to be aware of cultural diversity.”

Social insect lovers

Sharing insect cuisine serves as a communication tool at regional and exchange events.

The “Hebo no Su (black hornet larvae honeycomb) Contest” in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, will mark its 20th anniversary this year. The honeycombs are gathered before summer, and the hornets are fed a lot so they’ll build bigger combs. Hebo larvae are stewed in soya sauce and sugar. The heaviest comb wins the prize in the November contest, and the combs always sell out.

About 2,000 tourists – twice the area’s population – visit the city for the contest. Masatoshi Yabushita, 74, chairman of the Kushihara hebo lovers’ group that organises the contest, said the event is held to enjoy the autumn harvest.

Nakanojo, Gunma Prefecture, holds the “Inagompic” (Locust Olympics) in October, at which people to compete to catch the most locusts by hand. At the sixth event this year, tourists and residents will gather in a harvested rice field to watch the competition while eating rice balls.

Insect cuisine researcher Shoichi Uchiyama, 62, said: “Japanese people often meet and eat special cuisine such as hachinoko at autumn festivals, boasting about their harvests or exchanging home recipes. That’s how they communicate.”

Uchiyama, who is from Nagano Prefecture, has studied insect cuisine for 15 years and attended events nationwide. He even wrote a book titled Konchushoku Nyumon (Insect cuisine for beginners) .

To introduce some recipes, Uchiyama used crickets that he raised, a popular food in Southeast Asia. He deep-fried about 1cm-long crickets and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. They taste like shrimp.

He then soaked giant water bugs, which are sold at Asian speciality stores, to remove salt and boiled them. Their meat tastes like green apples.

It’s important to heat insects well and those who are allergic shouldn’t try to eat them, he said.

“There are inedible insects, too. If you’re interested in insect cuisine, seek advice from knowledgeable people before trying any,” Uchiyama said.

You may feel conflicted about putting bugs into your mouth, but insects don’t taste weird. Rather, you’ll want to tell other people about it. It’s certainly a good topic for conversation. – The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

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