When I'm not blogging for Bay Area Bites, I work as an Interactive Producer for QUEST, the science, nature and environment series produced by KQED. We launched our sixth television season this past Wednesday, and one of the fascinating stories from the premiere episode, "Edible Insects: Finger Lickin' Grub," focuses on a food trend that's newer to Americans, but not to the rest of the globe: eating bugs.
The producer of this segment, Sheraz Sadiq, has been making the rounds around town promoting his story. He recently participated at one of the Nerd Nite SF gatherings, a popular event that bills itself as, "The Discovery Channel...with beer!" More than 200 people packed the Rickshaw Stop on April 18th. "After a brief introduction by the organizer, Bart Bernhardt," says Sheraz, "QUEST TV Series Producer Amy Miller and I came out on stage. Amy did a terrific job talking about QUEST and the impetus for the edible insects story.
We showed the last six minutes of the story and then I moderated a discussion with Monica Martinez and Daniella Martin, two chefs featured in the story. They talked about their favorite edible insects, the diversity of insect dishes in Mexico and then they took questions from the audience. I think the highlight for me, and I’m sure for many others there, was inviting ten or so folks to come onstage to sample an Aztec snack mix graciously prepared by Daniella Martin, consisting of popcorn, pumpkin seeds, roasted crickets, mealworms and wax moth larvae."
Sheraz also made an appearance at "Dirty, Earthy NightLife," this week's adults-only event held at the California Academy of Sciences. A screening of the story was followed by another tasting with both Monica Martinez and Daniella Martin, who served up carmelized mealworms over vanilla ice cream and salted crickets.
My colleague took some time out from his busy schedule with QUEST to answer a few questions about some of the intriguing information he gained about edible insects in the course of producing his story.
What pre-conceived notions did you have, if any, about insects as food before starting this story?
I did some preliminary research, including reading the excellent New Yorker article, “Grub,” by Dana Goodyear, which along with other media coverage of this unusual culinary phenomenon, helped inspire our particular take on edible insects. Those articles and stories did have descriptions of the diversity of the flavors possible with edible insects, but I couldn’t help being slightly disgusted at the prospect of nibbling a mealworm or swallowing a cricket whole. Like most people, I was raised with an entrenched bug bias that held insects to be vectors for disease and eminently worthy of squashing, especially if they invaded the sanctity of the home. “Fear Factor” clips of people eating insects, usually raw, made it difficult to believe that insects could not only be tasty but good for you. I’m happy to report that not only did I eat edible insects (crickets, mealworms, insect larvae) but that I actually enjoyed them more than I initially thought I would. And no, they don’t taste like chicken. Instead, they tasted nutty, shrimpy and the larvae were the richest, most buttery of the insects I gobbled.
Another misconception I had was the belief that people eat insects out of desperation when no other more attractive source of animal protein is readily available. However, in many countries, regional insect delicacies abound, including escamoles, an expensive dish made with ant eggs harvested from the roots of agave plants. Again, this misconception shows the prevalence of our society’s aversion to insects, an aversion perpetuated by horror films, “Fear Factor” stunts and even religious beliefs.
What were some of the more surprising facts you learned about insects through your research?
One fact regarding edible insects that I never tire of telling anyone within earshot is that 80% of the world’s population regularly eats insects. Also, 80% of all the animals on earth are insects and of the millions of species of insects on the planet, more than 1000 are edible! Other facts which left an indelible impression for me have to do with the environmental impact of eating traditional forms of meat. For instance, 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be traced to the production of livestock, from deforestation of land to create pasture to the methane released by cows, for example. 70% of agricultural land is currently set aside to raise livestock as well. Insects are cold-blooded so they’re a much more efficient source of animal protein. In addition, they need very little space, they grow quickly and they can derive most if not all their water from their vegetarian diets. Although I still eat meat, I eat it only maybe twice a week instead of five or more times a week before I produced this story. If only I could get my hands on more tasty bee larvae!
Can you give us an update about one of the entrepreneurs, Monica Martinez of Don Bugito, who’s featured in the QUEST video?
At the 2011 San Francisco Street Food Festival, Monica Martinez launched the nation’s first edible insect food cart, Don Bugito. The street food fans responded enthusiastically to her tasty wax moth larvae tacos, cricket salad and Mexican vanilla ice cream topped with caramelized mealworms. When I checked in with Monica earlier this month, she told me that she was trying to raise funds through Kickstarter.com to buy an actual cart and establish a more regular presence for the pre-Hispanic insect fare for which she has garnered much attention. She also mentioned that the PBS series “NOVA ScienceNow” had filmed at her house on April 6th, capturing scenes of her cooking and showing off the mealworms she raises on an organic diet of oats and carrots.
In addition to the media coverage, Don Bugito now has a bi-monthly presence at the prestigious "Off the Grid" food cart venue at Fort Mason and Monica’s signature wax moth larvae tacos are also being served on Monday evenings at Mosto in San Francisco’s Mission District, which must be good news for intrepid foodies hankering for a tasty and exotic bite to eat, exoskeleton and all.