the practice of eating insects, especially by people.
As I walked through Phsar Leu Market located off of National Highway 6 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the ancient seat of the Khmer Empire, my senses were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells. This is where Cambodians do their daily shopping. Unlike the Old Market located in Siem Reap’s central tourist ghetto, Phsar Leu is undeniably authentic. It does not cater to tourists and takes no prisoners. Vendors lined the thin alleyways selling everything from prahok (the ubiquitous fermented fish paste) to all manner of animalia in varying states of preparation. Stopping at a stall, I pointed at a blue plastic bag. Contained within was a tangle of small, red insects interspersed with white dots. I asked my fixer Socheat what it was. He responded: “Ants.”
Scientists estimate that there are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10 quintillion) insects on the splanet, perhaps the largest biomass on Earth. As the world’s population continues to grow, the need for food increases with it. Insects take far less resources to raise and offer better nutritional value than poultry, beef and pork. As available land decreases and food demands increase, the idea of putting insects on the menu is becoming more attractive.
On closer inspection, that was exactly what it was: ants and larvae. Specifically, weaver ants. Weaver ants are found throughout Southeast Asia. These ants weave large nests using larval silk and tree leaves in an amazing feat of cooperative engineering. Their colonies are very large, containing millions of members. Socheat asked if I’d like to try some. My immediate reaction was one of trepidation. Even for an adventurous eater, there was something inherently troublesome about it. This initial response is solely predicated on our western programming. Bugs are not food. They should not go in your mouth.
Fighting through the split second of gustatory angst, I reached down into the bag, grabbed a pinch of ants and popped them into my mouth. As I bit down, I was struck by an incredible explosion of flavor. All doubt was instantly banished. Imagine an ever so slightly gritty tobiko (flying fish roe commonly used on sushi), but instead of an effervescent, salty pop, it’s pure citrus—lime to be exact. Weaver ants taste exactly like lime. I grabbed another pinch before I was pulled away to look for custard apples. If I had access to weaver ants in the United States, they would find a permanent place in my mise en place.
Western societies have been taught that insects are unclean, dirty, something to eradicate and avoid. We cringe at the idea of using insects as food. Those creeping, crawling denizens of our nightmares do not have a rightful place at the dinner table. They should be relegated to the underworld as food for lesser beings. We do not eat bugs.
This is a purely modern sensibility borne of an excess of riches. Well-heeled Westerners have for so many years been in the throws of an all-access food culture and created an overindulgent cornucopia that does not include bugs. Even in the age of food networks, culinary worship, and chefs-as-rock stars, we have forgotten the humble and nourishing insect. These beautifully simple creatures potentially hold, within their exoskeletons, one of the key solutions to food security, global warming, and decreasing availability of productive agricultural lands.
Outside of Siem Reap, in the heart of the lawless northern borderlands, resides the small administrative district of Phkoam. It lies in the middle of hectares of vast rice paddies. The residents are subsistence rice farmers. My hosts were a family of six who lived in a typical Khmer stilt house. The bottom floor consisted of a cement floor, a small bench along one wall, a large raised bed, and TV on a stand. There was no cable; the only station was the government-run Cambodian National TV. A single, bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling. By American standards, it was sparse.
I was there to follow local honey hunters into the field in search of the rare dwarf Asian honeybee (Apis florea). After a difficult day tromping through cassava and banana fields, we stopped at a farmer’s house to discuss the location of a nearby colony of A. florea. The farmer was wearing a camouflage military style jacket. He said something in Khmer to Socheat, then produced a small white bowl. Socheat turned to me and said, “He wants to know if you want lunch.”
In the bowl, fried in oil, were all manner of insects: grasshoppers, katydids, crickets, stick bugs, and mantises. Buoyed by my weaver ant experience, I responded to my new friend, “Yes, please,” and picked out a medium-sized katydid. Frying rendered the color a very pleasant light green. Along its sides ran a rusty, reddish stripe. I took a bite.
The bug was expertly cooked. From the initial crunch to the finish, it was surprisingly good. The exoskeleton crackled like the skin of a perfectly fried egg roll, a flavor slightly nutty, pleasant, not offensive or overwhelming.
Next up was a large mantis. It was about an inch and a half long, graceful and exotic, limbs slightly akimbo and head cocked. I took a bite. I was greeted by the now familiar exoskeleton crunch. Again, the first flavor to hit the palette was a slight nuttiness. This quickly gave way to the taste of flowers—this mantis was insanely floral. I started digging through the bowl, picking out and eating all the mantises I could find.
At dinner that evening, a very traditional Khmer meal is served. Bowls of rice, morning glory sour soup, roast pig, prahok, small round eggplant, lufa are all placed on a simple mat on the cement floor. Near the other bowl sat a small oblong delicate honeycomb of Apis florea replete with pupae. Looking at the delicate honeycomb I realize that within its wax is the perfect food; the honey is the carbohydrate and the pupae the protein. I reach down an pull out a small perfectly white pupae from the comb. It is neither overly soft or hard to the touch. Putting it in my mouth I bite down. There is no gutty pop. No offensive flavor. Just a nice snap transitioning into a very clean light flavor profile. Dwarf honeybee pupae would be a welcome textural addition to a light summer salad. In fact, I would add weaver ants bringing it to the next level. Dwarf Honey Bee Summer Salad w/ Weaver Ant Vinaigrette. It would be amazing, though no without culpability.
Unlike the weaver ants, A. florea is in decline. I know this as a student of apiculture and honey hunting. They are migratory and follow the blooms throughout the country. As more and more land is used up for mono crop agriculture, their forage pathways are choked off. They become marooned in small areas. Add to this non-sustainable honey hunting techniques and you have a recipe for extinction. Though they were enjoyable, in the back of my mind I had a difficult time with eating them because of their precarious hold on existence.
To the people of Cambodia, insects are a much needed protein source. To fully understand this and not impose our pious American world view, one only needs to look to the horrific genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge. Its effects have been deep and far reaching, plunging the nation into abject poverty. Food insecurity is a way of life. One cannot, in good conscious, tell a starving person that they cannot eat food that will mean the difference between life and death because their practices are not sustainable. It is a very real and complex issue with no simple solution in sight. It is a large part of the reason we see the prevalence of entomophagy in this region.
All of the small, unassuming insects I ate were absolutely stunning. They ceased to be bugs in my mind and instead became an exciting new culinary ingredient to play with. It was this experience that allowed me to reframe insects as an approachable component of Western cooking. Often times, we are clouded by our cultural programming. The lens through which we view our world prevents us from new experiences. When we step outside of our comfort zone and take the leap into the abyss, we are sometimes rewarded with a revelation. In this case, it is that bugs are not just the food of squalor. They are instead noble creatures, not only potentially holding the key to a hungry, overpopulated planet, but contributing significantly to our Western culinary landscape.