Dispatches from the lab: Exploring the Deliciousness of Insects in Africa
This is Dispatches from the Lab, a new regular column in which the Nordic Food Lab share stories of their work and their travels. Today NFL researcher Josh Evans takes us to Kenya and Uganda, where he and colleague Ben Reade recently traveled to investigate entomophagy. The trip was part of their research initiative to “make insects delicious to the Western palate.”
This entry focuses on a visit to the hills of southwestern Uganda, where after finding, cooking, and eating crickets, a clearer answer to the driving question of the project — How do we make something delicious for which we have no cultural context, no tradition of eating? — emerged. Here is Josh:
At the end of last year, Ben and I left Copenhagen for one month of field work in Kenya and Uganda. We were going to study insects. We would look at which insects people eat, where and when they eat them, how they cook them, and the insects’ place in the local cuisine and surrounding ecology.
Before the trip, I knew in principle why we were doing the field work. Yet it was when we were on the trip that it all became truly clear: even with many of the other neglected, underutilized, and forgotten edible resources we work with — like wild plants, algae, game animals, and microbes — we have some context to work from, the thread of a tradition from our region or another we could pick up, trace back, and carry forward. Sure, we already use some insects as food sources, like bees for honey, or cochineal for the red in food colorants. But how are we supposed to make something delicious that we have no cultural context for, no tradition of eating, no existing gastronomic knowledge to start from?
This is what I am thinking about when Mzee John Ssentongo shoves the enamel teapot under our noses. John is a spry man with grey hair and scruff, eyes glinting with joy and mischief. We are meeting him in December in his garden in Lukindu, in the hills of southwestern Uganda. There is a persistent scratching from inside the patterned pot that intensifies when he moves it about. “Look, look,” he says, pointing in. “…four, five, six – so many! Ha! I had my grandchildren catch them for you this morning.”
We peer inside. Huge crickets the size of my thumb scamper against each other and the sides of the pot. They are called jjenje (singular) and mayenje (plural) in Luganda, the main language of Central and South Uganda. Ben and I stare in, but John has already moved on, laughing the whole while and pulling us along to see the garden, which is a series of plots linked by paths lined with vines and hedges, anchored by sinkholes for compost that hold moisture in and return nutrients to the soil, with trees twisting into a shade-giving canopy overhead. This is extremely robust and productive land. John pulls herbs and flowers for us to smell and taste: indigenous greens, pea aubergines, air potatoes, rare banana varieties, coffee flowers, and fruits. The place pulses with a green, incessant health.
He brings us inside and serves us plates of fragrant watermelon in a dark room. The melon is warm, crunchy, juicy, with no grains and the flavor of demerara sugar. We decide he’ll show us how he finds the crickets. We head to another area of the garden. John’s friend and collaborator in the garden, Gerald, plucks green mangoes on the way. They are full of mango flavor, more sour than sweet. Gerald tells us a tree will grow wherever we throw the stone. I have no trouble believing it. I also don’t want to put a tree where it’s not suited. He tells us that once they sprout and take root, he digs them up and transplants them to a more suitable location within the garden. The food grows the garden further.
We work our way along a path between a patch of maize and land left to grow wild, flowers and scents I have not ever smelled or seen bursting from the green.
“Here!” John says, finding a hole in the reddish earth at the side of the path. “This is where we dig!” He begins chopping into the low bank, a tunnel revealed in cross-sections, sloping down. “This is where it lives. It makes two chambers, one for eating which is above, one for laying eggs, which is below. It is very clean.” Mzee cuts further, and comes to a dead end. “It’s trying to trick us! Ha!” he says, backtracking to a fork and digging down the other way. “Sometimes, it makes more tunnels, to fool us.” And then the bottom of the pit erupts in a violent buzzing. The cricket is filling a cavity under its wings with air, vibrating in loud resistance. Mzee grabs it gingerly from behind and holds it up for us to see. Then he pops it into the teapot and we’re off searching for the next.
After a few more, we return to the house to cook. We have nine in total. We take two for samples (one female, one male) and begin preparing the rest. They are still vigorous, some of the males still buzzing indignantly. Gerald takes them from the teapot one by one, plucking off the wings and lower joints of each of the six legs. The remaining upper joints flail. He takes the head and pulls it forward, inserting a small twig into the top of the neck to lift out the two small connected sacs of the digestive tract. They are still alive. When he has done them all, he puts them into a pail of water to clean them, and only then do they die.
While Gerald has been cleaning the crickets, Ben and I have sliced some tomatoes, green peppers, and chilies. Mzee has chopped some green onion and prepared the stove. We bring the crickets and onions into the cooking house. Mzee pours a few drops of oil into the hot pan and fries the crickets whole, tossing in the onions after a few minutes, along with a pinch of salt. He cooks them for about seven minutes, and the house is filled with a full, savory aroma.
We bring them outside to eat. Mzee has arranged a mat on the grass. We lay out the crickets and the raw vegetables. “No, we must wait,” Mzee says, as Ben asks if we can try them. They should be eaten a little cool. The tomatoes are sweet, sour, and full; the peppers fresh and bitter. The chilies are brisk and intensely floral.
The crickets are delicious. They are large enough that we can taste different properties in different parts. The thighs are thick, with a crisp shell and a concentrated flavour of chicken, which leads us to consider our comparative lack of descriptors for animal protein flavours compared to, say, plants. The head is bursting with fat and umami juices, silky and reminiscent of lamb’s brains. The body is milder, creamy and slightly sweet.
This is but one course of many sampled throughout the course of the day. After the crickets are scooped up and the last of the tomatoes and peppers are eaten, Mzee brings over an immense jackfruit, lays it on some banana leaves, and slices it open with a machete. Sticky white sap begins to ooze out of the pale yellow flesh. He shows us how to wipe it away repeatedly with eggplant leaves (the fuzzy, rough surface is good for catching the sap) until it stops, and we can remove the succulent hearts from villi-like pith. It has the iconic aroma of tutti frutti or bubblegum (apparently jackfruit was the inspiration); from the solventy whiff of ethyl acetate, this one is just a tad overripe, but nonetheless delicious.
Half the jackfruit demolished, the knobbly green skin and fragments of pith strewn over the banana leaves, we follow Mzee with sticky hands and faces over to the edge of the garden. “Here!” he says, plucking deep red nasturtium flowers and pulling up slender carrots straight from the ground. “Here! Taste!” he says again, cutting leaves of adult rocket as long as my forearm. They are not tough, but crisp and eye-watering and aromatic as they only can be in the first half-minute after being picked.
The intensity of the flavor in this garden is overwhelming, and seeing how things are grown, with a wide range of intercropped species, it becomes clear that the diversity is what promotes such healthy land and such incredible taste. Our diet today makes me and Ben feel close to our primate nature, gathering fruits and greens and bugs that grow abundantly all around us. Forget the Paleo diet; this primate diet – insects, leaves, and fruits – leaves us refreshed, vigorous, and eager.
Mzee tells us more about the life of the crickets. “Previously, you could get a lot, a lot. Now it is more scarce. Maybe because of the weather, maybe because people burn the bushes.” Before, it was only the men who ate them; that was the culture. Now, women eat them too. The same with the grasshoppers.
“They don’t just eat anything. They eat only plants with soft leaves, like beans, groundnuts, and others. So they live in gardens and some wild land.”
We ask him if he thinks they could be farmed. “Yes, maybe, but only in a garden! You would need a big garden with lots of things, like this. And they can also fly away at night.” We discuss maybe lining a garden with a net. “Yes, you could, but then, why not just keep the garden?” The point was clear: the crickets were one of many food sources from the garden, and if they couldn’t be found one day, there would always be something else.
This experience was in contrast to many other farming communities we went to during our trip, where a diversity of crops, short supply chains, and low waste had been given up for various editions of miracle maize that were meant to generate income and create food security. The problems of relying on just one crop were evident: if it failed for whatever reason, there was nothing to be done; and if it grew well, then it would come to market with everyone else’s high-yield maize, deflating the market price so much that many farmers couldn’t make nearly enough to pay back the loans for the new seeds, and would be forced to give up their property to the bank. Such is the ruthless paradox of a bumper harvest in a food system that relies too heavily on one crop and one taste.
Meanwhile, Gerald is digging radishes and Mzee is pulling a sprig of rosemary for us to take. Aromatic herbs like this are rare in the food we’ve seen here, but Mzee takes a wider approach to growing his garden. He has also taken some of the jackfruit seeds, big brown things the size of a brazil nut, and wrapped them in dry banana leaves, tying the small packages with a length of the fibre. He loads us up with the gifts. He is coming with us into town, but he thanks us anyway for coming and we say goodbye to Gerald, a man of fewer words but no less presence.
Ben and I are lost in the smell of the rosemary as our car trundles down the stony road. The package of jackfruit seeds sits loosely in my hand. The tree won’t grow back home; but the knowledge from Mzee’s garden has already taken root. It matters less the specific animal, vegetable, fungus – what matters is cultivating the ecology out of which gastronomy emerges. We could try and farm these crickets back home, but what would that achieve? It is useful to know that an insect is eaten at all, and how it is cooked, but the real gain is knowing why. The mayenje are eaten not just because they are delicious but because they are a necessary part of this ecosystem. Their existence is connected to the earth they build their nest in, the bean and potato leaves they eat, the birds and people that eat them.
How do we make something delicious for which we have no cultural context, no tradition of eating? We begin at ground level and work our way up. If we, as cooks and growers and eaters, want a specific ingredient, our common method is to try to breed, raise, and grow it directly. Yet sometimes it is both more effective and more delicious to build the system out of which our desired food emerges. We will not try to raise these crickets back home in Denmark – we would be much more interested in building a similar polycultural garden that would attract all manner of animal life, insects included.
Gastronomy begins in ecology: we want to eat what is around us, and if insects are part of this diversity, so much the better.