The air around our legs clattered with the tumbling bodies of locusts, their gleaming translucent wings bursting outwards as they hop through the grass. While at our urban community garden plot grasshopper populations have been noticeably high, in the browning stubble of paddocks on the eastern side of the Adelaide Hills the numbers still indicate the population spike that comes from good rains and plenty to eat. Indeed, with the recent plague, there’s been a surge in discussion about the possibilities of eating those that feast on our farms. Walking through these farms on a Sunday afternoon, I was reminded of the description of John the Baptist, as a gentleman who “wore clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6).
While that introduction alone is enough to get John invited to headline a permaculture skillshare, the Judeo-Christian tradition has further references to hopping cuisine. Articulating the ancient Hebrew holy laws regarding food, the Old Testament book of Leviticus reminds the faithful that there are “some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat, those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest” (Leviticus 11:21-23).
As far back as 1875, the New York Times published a column on the possibilities for eating locusts as a way of dealing with an annual plague of the creatures. While referring to the locust as “the new bird for table consumption”, the Times alludes to Herodotus describing Ethiopian cultures consuming locusts, and likewise, Jules Verne recounts dining on the minibeasts in Africa, describing them as “shrimps of the air”. In Russia, they were reputedly salted and smoked “after the fashion of pork”, while “the Hebrews of Morocco” roast them overnight for consumption on the Sabbath. On the Pacific Coast of the US, the Times luridly reports how native American groups “organise a locust or grasshopper hunt, and surround flocks of these insects with a cordon of noisy savages, who beat the ground and drive the game into deep holes dug in the earth. The captives are then roasted by piling hot stones over them and are eaten without condiments”. As an alternative, native American groups also apparently would mash the locusts “to a fine flour, mixed in a paste with pulverised berries of the manzanita” (The New York Times, 19 August 1875).
In Oaxaca, Mexico, chapulínes, or grasshoppers, remain an important regional specialty, available both as a snack from most markets, and as an important source of protein for marginal communities. According to Hugo Sandoval, chapulín harvester, “the average low-income person in the region eats chapulín two or three times a week. It makes up for the lack of protein in their normal diet” (Colours magazine, Autumn 2006). Collected at night, when the cold-blooded grasshoppers are lethargic, the chapulínes can be “pan-fried, dipped in hot sauce, sun-dried, salted, stuffed in tacos with guacamole or as an edible garnish with alcoholic drinks”.
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1 serrano chile, seeded and diced
1 lime cut into wedges
1/2 of an onion, chopped
1/2 cup of oil for frying
1. Pull the wings and legs of each grasshopper.
2. Heat the oil in a shallow pan and sauté garlic, chilli and onions until the onions are translucent.
3. Remove the onions, chilli and garlic from the oil with a slotted spoon.
4. Fry the grasshoppers in the oil until brown and crispy, then remove and drain well.
5. Season with salt and a squeeze of lime juice.
6. Enjoy as a snack, or wrap in a tortilla with guacamole or salsa.
Adapted from http://mexicanfood.about.com/od/authenticfamilyrecipes/r/chapulines.htm
Organic farmer Jason Fowler has recently added “free range crispy fried grasshoppers” to the menu of his restaurant near Broome, Western Australia. After they stripped citrus and banana trees on his orchard and herb farm, Fowler began to experiment with cooking the hoppers, settling on deep frying them in hot oil for 30 seconds. Now employing his kids to harvest grasshoppers to meet demand, he describes the flavour as akin to “a prawn stuffed with grass”. Fowler explains that it’s “quite a strange flavour to explain. The wings are quite chewy, they’re not easy to eat, and the legs are quite crunchy if you cook them right. Some people don’t eat the head because it’s quite hard. Especially the mandibles. You’ve got to be pretty keen to eat the head I think”. Meanwhile, some of his neighbours have frozen quantities of the hoppers as stock feed for leaner times.
While confirming the culinary potential of locusts, Victoria’s Department of Primary Industry cautions that locusts may contain residual chemicals from spraying. Noting that sprayed crops are withheld from harvest until the chemicals’ active ingredients diminish in toxicity, The Age suggests keeping locusts in an aquarium for two weeks, and fattening them on lawn clippings. “If they die first, they’re still usable as they dry out – like chillies”.
In Australia, the preferred method of tackling locust plagues is to spray with chemicals Fenitothion and Fipronil. According to the Pesticide Action Network (PAN, http://www.pesticideinfo.org/), both are suspected endocrine disruptors, that is, they interrupt the normal process of cell maintenance and reproduction. Fipronil is also a possible carcinogen and Fenitothion is listed on the PAN “Bad Actors List” for high toxicity. The use of these pesticides is also raising concerns regarding their impact on the population of locusts’ natural predators: insectivorous mammals, fish and birds. Speaking to the ABC, Sydney University ecologist Christopher Dickman indicates that there is a need for greater exploration of native insectivores in controlling outbreaks, something that won’t be achieved if their populations are inadvertently depleted by chemical use.
Plagues aside, a recent policy paper considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, seeks to explore possibilities for expanding insect consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas intensive industrial meat production. Belgian entomologist Arnold van Huis highlights that 80 percent of countries around the world already eat insects. “It is only in the Western world that we don’t. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don’t know why, as we eat shrimps which are very comparable.” Insects tend to contain high levels of protein, vitamins and minerals, and produce 10 times less methane than livestock and 300 times less nitrous oxide than industrial pig and poultry farming. Cold-blooded, insects are also extremely efficient at converting plant matter to protein.
In the spirit of the permaculture principle of creatively responding to change, next time you see a cloud of locusts bearing down on your vegie patch, rather than fearing the loss of your lettuces, you may instead consider the pleasures of an impending protein rush. When it comes to hoppers, if you can’t beat them, eat them!
Recipes from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation
Tinjiya (Tswana recipe): remove the wings and hindlegs of the locusts, and boil in a little water until soft. Add salt, if desired, and a little fat and fry until brown. Serve with cooked, dried mealies (corn).
Sikonyane (Swazi recipe): prepare embers and roast the whole locust on the embers. Remove head, wings, and legs, in other words, only the breast part is eaten. The South Sotho people use locusts especially as food for travellers. The heads and last joint of the hindlegs are broken off and the rest laid on the coals to roast. The roasted locusts are ground on a grinding stone to a fine powder. This powder can be kept for long periods of time and is taken along on a journey. Dried locusts are also prepared for the winter months. The legs, when dried, are especially relished for their pleasant taste.
Cambodia: take several dozen locust adults, preferably females, slit the abdomen lengthwise and stuff a peanut inside. Then lightly grill the locusts in a wok or hot frying pan, adding a little oil and salt to taste. Be careful not to overcook or burn them.
Barbecue (grilled): prepare the embers or charcoal. Place about one dozen locusts on a skewer, stabbing each through the centre of the abdomen. If you only want to eat the abdomen, then you may want to take off the legs or wings either before or after cooking. Several skewers of locusts may be required for each person. Place the skewers above the hot embers and grill while turning continuously to avoid burning the locusts until they become golden brown.
Philippines: Locusts have been accepted in San Fernando,Pampanga as a palatable special dish, cooked “adobo” style. Adobo is a popularly common dish found in the Philippines, thus a national dish among the Filipinos. Typically made from pork or chicken or a combination of both, it is slowly cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, crushed garlic, bay leaf, and black peppercorns, and often browned in the oven or pan-fried afterwards to get the desirable crisped edges. This dish originates from the northern region of the Philippines. Commonly packed for Filipino mountaineers and travelers, the relatively long shelf-life of this food is well known due to one of its primary ingredient’s, particularly vinegar, that inhibits the growth of bacteria. Tip: substitute locusts for the chicken or pork
Uganda: Clean the locusts by removing the legs and wings, then fry them with some chopped onion and season with curry powder.
Mexico: (1) Roast 40 locusts for 10 minutes at 180°, then remove the wings, legs and heads and toss with the juice of 1 lemon, 2 cloves of garlic and salt to taste. (2) Mash 2 avocados and spread on 6 tortillas. (3) Sprinkle with locust torsos and enjoy. Serves six. (adapted from a Mexican grasshopper dish from the pages of the excellent Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects, by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio)