When I tried my first mealworm at a food festival in Prague, I was hooked. Many of my friends, however, turned up their noses and had strong negative reactions – despite knowing little about the topic. Fascinated by their adamant attitudes, I went on a mission to find out why exactly my friends from around the globe find the concept of eating insects so disgusting.
An abundance of large centipedes on a stick and black spiders that look hairy even after deep-frying can be seen at Wangfujing Street, a famous shopping area in Beijing. While attracting adventurous tourists and seasoned locals, eating insects is far from normal for most Chinese, including my 24-year-old friend Stella from Wenzhou City in the Zhenjiang province.
“I guess the only situation where I would eat them is if I didn’t know they were bugs,” Stella told me. “The presentation of them is very disgusting and so is the presentation of the food. I can’t even look at the pictures of those bugs being cooked. None of the people I know eats bugs.”
The first time I visited Stella’s house she offered me a plate of duck beaks, so I knew she wasn’t squeamish, but after clicking through photos of these stalls, I understood why she is scared of trying insects: they are intentionally presented for shock value. Growing up associating entomophagy with that extreme image in mind, it is difficult to shift your mindset to consider insects as a healthy and sustainable dietary supplement.
Chinami, one of my best friends since middle school, was born Northeast of Zhenjiang in Anjo, Japan, less than six hours by plane from Stella. Her family had introduced me to Tamago Kake Gohan, rice with raw egg, which was the first time I stepped outside my food comfort zone. She claims that she wouldn’t eat bugs unless she was starving and had no other option. Ants, locust, hornets, bees and other insects are known to be eaten in some areas in Japan and while they are easier to come by than in the West, the tradition is slowly disappearing and eating insects isn’t very common anymore.
Chinami tells me that if she was a typical Japanese person, she might eat bugs as long as people around her ate them. Yet when asked about what could convince her to eat them, she didn’t turn to social factors, but aesthetics: “If bugs had a better appearance then it would be much easier. After all, we eat other animals.”
I believe appearance plays an important role in gastronomy, especially when it comes to new and exotic dishes. 27-year-old Hussein from Egypt appeared quite surprised when I asked him about eating bugs. Attitude towards bugs has changed a lot since Ancient Egypt when the dung beetle was worshiped and scarabs were given for luck.
“I have this mental picture of a cockroach coming out of the sewers or a bug flying over trash. Most of the time, bugs seem to be roaming around touching everything, but if I was starving to death I would definitely give it a chance,” Hussein says with a grin.
While it seems like some people in Western Europe are curious about trying bugs, many, like 36-year-old Pablo from Málaga in Spain, are resistant. Pablo loves to organize international dinners, brunches and he loves to bake cakes – but bugs are never on the menu.
“If I couldn’t see them and I didn’t know they are there, then I would eat them of course,” Pablo says, making me immediately think of cricket powder. The impression I’m getting from my friends here in Prague, no matter where in the world they come from, is that their disgust mainly comes from seeing bugs and imagining them in a certain way. This makes me think that people would be much more willing to try bugs if they were in a processed form. Talking to my colleague and frequent lunch buddy Cindy, my hunch is corroborated.
“I probably ate so many bugs throughout my life because I didn’t notice them,” the 26-year-old from Hof, Germany, says as she struggles to keep a straight face. “If they were to heal me from a terrible disease, I would eat them without thinking.”
Maria from Tallinn, Estonia, is a year younger than Cindy and the two young women have similar opinions about eating insects. Maria told me that if they were prescribed to her by a doctor or if they were recommended as a way to improve her health, she would give them a chance. Her point shows the importance of educating people on health benefits of entomophagy.
“My knowledge of bugs is limited,” says 25-year-old Robert from Iaşi, Romania. He told me he would need very specific information before trying them. While he orders bravely from a Czech menu that he doesn’t understand, he’s more cautious when it comes to bugs. “I wouldn’t know if I was eating some kitchen cockroach, which is probably unhealthy and tastes horrible, or if I was eating something good.”
Most of my friends were amused, laughed at my questions and made grossed out faces – but not everyone finds eating insects disgusting. Unsurprisingly, someone from a region where it’s more common gave me a more positive response. Kwadwo from Ghana considers eating bugs natural. Kwadwo has a more informed opinion than the others, and maybe that’s why his attitude is more positive. He points out that they contain lots of proteins and spoke seriously about the topic.
Having talked to my friends from Europe, Eastern Asia and the Middle East, it seems to me that the most influential factors in turning a naysayer into a bug-eater are the appearance of insects as well as learning about their health benefits.
So maybe, once people become more and more informed, they will change their attitude about entomophagy, and we will find ourselves living in a world where guests in a restaurant will complain to the waiter about NOT having worms in their salads.