Featured writer: M. Blaha
I could see the expression on my mom’s face when I told her I would be writing an article for Shanghai Expat about eating insects. I asked myself each day leading up to the day of éntomos consumption what I could have possibly been thinking when I suggested this idea for an article. The texture? The taste? I could only speculate what each of these things would be like (my Google searches usually turned up “super crunchy” and “nutty”), and I have to say that none of my speculations were good. Much of the developing world, mainly countries in Asia, have long made insects part of their diet, including the Yunnan Province of China. But in Shanghai, the concept of eating insects is just as strange as it was for me.
My friend and I, along with our Shanghainese friend Vincent, went to a restaurant called the Southern Barbarian the other night to sample some tasty critters. Vincent certainly seemed more excited about the prospect of eating insects than Ashley and me. Like me, he’s heard about how healthy insects are supposed to be due to the fact that they’re low in fat, high in proteins, B Vitamins, iron, and zinc. Not to mention that they are extremely abundant, with over 1,000 species identified as edible. Most Chinese people are very concerned with the health benefits of their food. Vincent was prepared to eat a lot of bugs and feel super strong and energized.
We chose to order a sort of insect sampler: honeybees flash-fried and sprinkled with salt and pepper, fried grasshoppers, and fried caterpillars. With a nice brew selected from their extensive beer menu, I can safely say that insects might be able to pass as a new kind of pub grub…if only we could get past the ick factor. I tended to pick out the honeybees and grasshoppers that no longer resembled their animated forms—a leg or wing amputated, a head crushed or severed. This didn’t always work out. Somehow those damn grasshoppers managed to stay whole. Though they were a little greasy, the grasshoppers weren’t half bad; they kind of tasted like the skin of a roast chicken, but the legs kept getting stuck in my teeth, which was a bit of a turn off. The honeybees were quite delicious—crunchy, a little sweet, a little salty with the fried battered texture of an onion ring. As for the caterpillars…one was enough.
It’s not exactly my ambition to be Shanghai Expat’s bizarre foodie, the person they turn to seek out Shanghai’s most outrageous dishes. I also don’t think I could ever participate in entomophagy (intentional ingestion of insects) on a regular basis. My intentions for the article were twofold: the term “ethical eating” (the word “ethical” followed by any verb, really) is being tossed around in popular culture a lot lately, and not just by vegetarians. I wanted to examine what it means and why insects are considered an ethical alternative to pork, beef, and chicken.
My second intention was to examine whether such dishes are a Shanghainese delicacy, and also whether ethical eating is a concept that does exist and, perhaps, should exist here. So what’s so ethical about eating grub? If we’re going to talk about life on a hierarchical scale, then bugs are low on the food chain. In a recent Salon article, Katherine Merow says that her transition from vegetarian to omnivore was to begin with eating bugs. It seemed like an easier progression than a piece of chicken or pork would be, as insects, surely, share a smaller percentage of genes with humans than a chicken, cow, or pig. And as we all know, vegetarians and former vegetarians try to look at eating from an ethical standpoint. Though Merow questions whether she’s correct in thinking that insects suffer less than chickens when they are raised and killed for consumption. Is it right to think that insects feel no pain? But eating insects is ethical for reasons outside of their unfortunate position on the food chain.
The fact is that raising and consuming insects does not require the energy and resources needed for raising livestock. One of the main reasons animal rights activists find eating meat so unethical is the conditions the animals are raised in. Chickens and cows can often be found crowded on top of one another; they require more space than is able to be allotted. Insects don’t require that much space. They naturally live on top of one another, so raising them would be easier and have less impact on the environment. They also contribute less pollution. We now know that cows release 70-120 kg of methane each year, a potentially serious problem for the ozone layer. But Merow’s article states that “advocates note the efficiency with which the likes of silkworms and cockroaches convert plant food to edible body mass, and cite the relatively low environmental impact of farming waxworms and water beetles.” As world population is projected to reach nine billion in 2050, it seems imperative that we should be looking for alternative sources of animal protein. With a population as large as China’s, finding alternative animal protein sources such as grub might benefit the country. But while Shanghainese people may be willing to eat grub, it would not replace pork or chicken. Even after he shoveled a good six or seven tablespoons of grub into his mouth, Vincent still needed to order two other meat dishes.