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Edible Insects: New Frontier For Western Cuisine Has Ancient Roots

Edible Insects
Bee larvae, or Botok Tawon, from Indonesia, are baked in banana leaves before being served. Credit: Meutia Chaerani/CC BY 2.5

With the recent green light for the production and introduction of the first edible insects into the markets of Europe, conflicting opinions were not slow in coming.

In May 2021, the European Union made an important leap forward, allowing the introduction of insects (as long as they are specially bred) in the food market of the continent in the form of snacks, dried insects, or derived flours.

By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

In this fourth article in this series, we continue to retrace the journey taken by Greeks and other peoples that brought about the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences to the world.

The 2021 ruling brought us closer to the forecast, which has been in the works for years, that sees the world population introducing food directly derived from insects into their diet with an estimated food requirement of seventy percent by 2050.

An increasingly widespread and often discussed topic, edible insects represent an integration, which is above all cultural, that is difficult for European consumers to accept.

Greeks and Romans often included edible insects in diet

But not everyone knows that the most ancient civilizations born on European territory—that of the Greeks and Romans—had  different types of insects in their daily diet, creating even niche products and some true delicacies.

Many might think that entomophagy in ancient times derived only from the precariousness of food sources and a possible lack of richness in the diet. We now know for sure that the study of food was one of the fundamentals of the societies of that time and the importance in the refinement of food was practically comparable to what we see today.

What examples do we have of entomophagy in early cultures in Europe?

Initially, we look at the Greek world, and how even philosophers of the caliber of Aristotle and Herodotus praised entomophagy and spoke of delicacies made from various types of insects.

Aristotle, in his work named “Historia Animalium” (“Τῶν περὶ τὰ ζῷα ἱστοριῶν”) tells what the best methods to sample various types of insects are. He talks about grasshoppers and how they were considered nutritious and delicious snacks.

He then offers a complete explanation about the phases of the life of insects and how they ultimately influence their taste.

According to the philosopher of Stagira, in fact, female adults are preferred after copulation, as they are full of eggs and therefore more appreciated by the diner.

Moreover, he explains that larvae of cicadas reach their prime taste in the last stage of development, what we know today as the nymph, or the stage preceding the adult age.

Edible insects made into spices, powdered flavorings

The great historian Herodotus, thanks to his travels, introduced the use of spices and powders derived from insects into the Greek world.

In a study concerning Libyan cultures, he writes about a drying process of locusts which leads to a fine powder to be used for flavoring milk—a sort of “animal spice.”

Nowadays, we know many cultures that also use these powders as surrogates for vegetable flours; despite this, we do not have direct evidence of a similar use in ancient Greek culture.

As for the Roman civilization, subsequent to the Greek one and widely influenced by many factors, the practice of entomophagy remains rooted in popular culture.

Pliny the Elder, the philosopher and first writer of Roman natural history, in his famous work “Naturalis Historia,” relates a story about a larva called Cossus that would have been a real feature of imperial tables.

According to what Pliny reported, chefs cooked them by first coating them in wine and flour whereas some of them fed meals to the larvae first in order to make them more substantial.

Despite the perfect description of its use in cooking, at the beginning there was some confusion in identifying Cossus with its current scientific name, but according to the British naturalist Charles Cowan, it would be the larva of the flying deer beetle (which lived in European oaks).

All of this begs the question: how could such a deep-rooted custom be lost over the centuries?

It seems absurd that a popular custom so widespread could have reached the point of being totally repudiated in our days.

The change had already begun in the centuries after Christ. By the year 3 AD, in fact, we can already find evidence of dissatisfaction towards foods derived from insects.

But why is this?

According to many, the main reason for this change was the evolution of various branches of medicine and animal studies, especially during this historical period when some insects began to be recognized as indirect or direct causes of some transmissible diseases of the time.

Although the smallest part of insects were sometimes defined as dangerous, public opinion attributed the same reputation to the whole category, leading to a rapid disappearance of entomophagy.

A second cause, much more cultural than scientific, would be that which links the disappearance of insects to the newly-expanded horizons of the then-known world.

The greater ease of travel meant that new populations were discovered in the first centuries after Christ, namely populations where entomophagy occupied a greater part of the daily diet.

So how could the discovery of new peoples have prompted the removal of insects from the Western diet?

In many travel documents of the time, the new peoples who were discovered who used insects as food were always described as smaller in stature, thinner, and weaker.

Even according to Diodorus, a 2nd century AD Greek historian, the newly discovered (to some) African peoples who were accustomed to acridophagy (eating orthopteran insects) had the formerly mentioned characteristics as a direct result of their diet.

These increasingly widespread claims led in their own way to an unconscious distancing of people from insects as foods.

Today, the largest organizations responsible for the study of food, are certain that “edible insects” are in reality the new superfood, capable of solving many problems related to pollution and overly intensive farming.

Surely, once we have overcome the ideological barriers and the various food stereotypes of the Western world, we could at least try to open our tables to new foods and detach a bit from our usual customs.

Lastly, we probably wouldn’t even have to make much of an effort because, as we have analyzed today, it’s part of our DNA anyway.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.

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