Insect Tapas on the Norwich Horizon?
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The difficult-to-swallow truth is that people around the world are hungry. And yet in the United Kingdom alone, 7 million tons of food and drink is thrown away from homes every year, half of which could have been eaten. That’s why people are trying to get creative about the way people look at food. It also explains the growing movement of people, like Norwich’s own Peter Bickerton, who are trying to convince people to eat insects. Yet if many can’t be convinced to eat their own leftovers, will insects really do the trick?

On an average night Peter Bickerton, the Publicity and Public Engagement Officer at the Genome Analysis Centre, roasted himself some dinner -- locust roasted in peri peri sauce.

You could say that Bickerton is kind of an experimental chef.

“Basically, with the bugs, it's kind of nice to marinate them in something, usually acidic, that's why I felt the lemon and the soy sauce,” Bickerton explained. “We'll basically just roast the locust after 20 minutes or so.”

After those 20 minutes, the locusts are boiled to perfection. They look like almost cute, tiny worms -- worms dripping with Nandos peri peri sauce.

It might weirden some people out, but more than 80% of countries in the world practice eating some species of insect. Plus, the UNs Food and Agricultural Organization says insects are vital to meeting the nutritional needs of the world's growing population. Yet most rich nations grow up afraid of creepy crawlers. Bickerton says that taste is taught.

“So if we see an Indiana Jones movie and he's crawling through all these bugs it's seen as a disgusting horrible thing,” Bickerton said.

Even James Bond is afraid of spiders. In Dr. No, Bond wakes up in the middle of the night when he sees a spider, which he mercilessly beats to death with his fist. “It’s seen as really scary, whereas if you grew up in Cambodia and the bugs are crawling all over the place you don’t see them as scary.”

A few years ago, Bickerton was asked to solve the global food crisis. That may sound like a hefty challenge, but Thought for Food, an organization dedicated to food security, figured that a ludicrous question would at least lead to interesting answers. And Bickerton’s answer was...insects. Zing!

“We’ve only got so much land and we’ve only got so many crops. We have a lot more people every year,” Bickerton said. “It's not sustainable to have 1 and a half billion cows, basically. But it would be more sustainable to have billions or trillions of insects.”

Insects are packed with protein. 100 grams of caterpillar, grasshopper, or dung beetle - take your pick - has more protein than 100 grams of minced beef. Insects produce reproduce like flies, and they don't eat like cows. Lice cream makes sense. Bickerton remembers the first time his locusts came in the mail.

“The postman turned up with this big box and I was like, ‘All my locust are here!’” Bickerton said. “And he kind of dropped the box and then opened it up and like the bag started shaking and stuff and they were all flying into it and things. It was like a cat in a cartoon, which was sort of funny.”

That night, Bickerton ate a locust hamburger. Before long he was baking locust pizzas at parties and bringing in locust pattes to work. He gives talks and makes videos about eating insects, hoping to convince others to crave chocolate chirp cookies as much as he does. He could work in a soup kitchen or help scavenge for wasted food in bins. But his mission is less rooted in direct action, and more about changing the way most Western Societies look at food.

“I suppose the target is the whole world. It's not gonna be overnight. You have to gradually introduce it as a concept,” Bickerton said.

He’s got a few strategies on his mission to get the people on the streets clamoring for egg flied rice and mince fly. One option is is to make the insects gourmet, like lobsters, which were once cheap. And then, so the plan goes, the insects will sliver from a hipster restaurants to the common man. Maybe. Or the other option is to hide the bugs so people don’t have a clue what’s in their food. That’s how many grapple with eating sausages. Plus, according to Carl Philpott, who runs the Small and Taste Clinic at the JAmes Paget Hospital in Garleston, it is possible to trick ourselves into believing we’re eating something pleasant we would otherwise find less so. He said that taste is complicated.

“So when you eat food the first thing you do is look at a plate of food,” Philpott said. “
You smell the food from outside your nose, you guess from the texture what it might taste like, and then when you put the food inside your mouth. Basically, the smell rises through the mouth in the back of the nose and allows us to perceive flavor. 80% of what we perceive as taste is actually due to that process.”

And, in the case of mostly tasteless insects, the texture and the unexpectedness ugliness of the insect is what strikes first before any taste comes. Memory is also involved, and unless you’ve eaten insects before, there’s no memory to turn to. Some of Philpott’s patients who have lost their sense of taste use their memories as much as their mouths to help them eat.

“So they will have a memory of what things smell and taste like, so often they'll say that when they eat or smell things they're evoking memories of what it was like rather than truly experiencing the actual flavor of it,” Philpott said.

Philpott says that so much plays a role in taste that taste buds can be tricked. For instance, in one experiment a group of people were given stale crisps to eat. “They were given headphones with the crunchy noise in it,” Philpott said. “They assumed that the crisps were normal and tasty. So you can fool the sense of what you're experiencing.”

And that’s why Bickerton wants the insects disguised: if people just don’t know they’re eating insects, they’ll order seconds. And we’ll all be healthier.

Insects in pere pere sauce can taste good, but even Bickerton admits they’re expensive. He can’t eat lobster every day, and he can’t eat locust every day. So he doesn’t. He’s got a long way to go before he solves world hunger.

It's a long shot. I think it is genuinely a longshot. But at some point we're basically going to have to do something because we literally have a finite amount of land and we're only using so much water and so many crops to feed cattle,” Bickerton said.

But he’s not the only one trying to get us all to eat insects. The Wahaca chain of Mexican street food restaurants introduced crickets to their menu in January. Grub, a London based company, sells packets of dried mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers and buffalo worms. An insect cookbook is likely available at your local bookstore. And, if you live in Norwich, Bickerton is most likely just around the block, and his locust pizzas are a hit at parties. His locust pizzas might not have solved world hunger yet, but if nothing else, they have helped people re-imagine what food can look like and what we should ask of it.

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