Kenichi Nonaka, Department of Geography, Rikkyo University, 3-34-1 Nishi-Ikebukuro Toshima, Tokyo 171-8501, Japan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Insects are an important natural resource, both for self-sufficiency and as commercial food products in many parts of the world. The use of edible insects reflects regional preferences and socio-cultural significance, which can be described in terms of regional differences. This study describes some edible insects in three regions: Japan, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa, and focuses on systems of traditional practices as the socio-cultural implications of people's preferences regarding edible insects. The case studies presented here describe such insect-related customs as the continuation of the traditional practice of insect eating in Japan, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa. These case studies describe the uniqueness or special characteristics of the custom, and the significance of its existence in the social sphere. Edible insects are regarded as cultural resources reflecting a rich biodiversity. They represent an alternative source of natural food resources in remote or mountainous areas. People who eat insects have established a broad variety of methods for collecting and cooking the rich diversity of edible insect species that are available. However, increases in demand could lead to competition and overexploitation, resulting in the future decline of these resources. In areas affected by overdevelopment, insect habitats are also likely to decline. It is necessary to raise people's awareness of the importance of the use of insects for food in order to ensure that insects are used in a sustainable manner, and to promote their proper use and conservation.
Insects are an important natural resource, both for self-sufficiency and as commercial food products in many parts of the world. Over 1900 species are listed as edible (Mitsuhashi 2008). The use of edible insects reflects regional preferences and socio-cultural significance, which can be described in terms of regional differences. Some people say they like insects either fried or prepared raw. Others, however, may dislike even talking about the subject as it evokes images of eating insects and they may find the very thought of it disgusting. Insects are often regarded as strange or unusual foods. Preferences vary geographically and historically. Clearly, a mutual relationship arises between humans and the natural environment through the use of insects. There are various aspects of this relationship, such as how people recognize which insects are suitable for food, how they find and catch them, and how and for what purposes they eat them (Nonaka 2005).
Edible insects are sometimes described as food for the poor. In reality, however, people eat them for their delightful taste and enjoy the process of collecting them. These insects also have high commercial value in many countries.
This study describes some edible insects in three regions: Japan, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa, and focuses on systems of traditional practices as the socio-cultural implications of people's preferences regarding edible insects. The case studies presented here describe such insect-related customs as the continuation of the traditional practice of insect eating in Japan's mountainous regions, the selling of insects at markets in Laos and the cooking of insects among the San in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. These case studies describe the uniqueness or special characteristics of the custom, and the significance of its existence in the social sphere.
Case study 1: Japan
In Japan, 55 species of insect were recorded as edible in an old report (Miyake 1919). Although numbers are declining annually, some insect species are still eaten and regional variations are shown on the map (Fig. 1).
The custom of collecting and eating insects in Japan is connected with rice culture, the use of mountain resources and regional society. Marketing of food insects is also common, especially in the central region. Grasshoppers, wasps, silkworms, longhorn beetle caterpillars and aquatic larvae are examples of popular edible insects.
Grasshoppers (mainly Oxya yezoensis) were once eaten widely in Japan. Grasshopper-based foodstuffs are on the decline, however, and much is now imported from other countries. These insects are usually sold soy-boiled and many people buy them from specialist shops selling domestic grasshoppers. When eaten for self-sufficiency purposes, they can be collected in neighboring paddy fields.
The woman in this picture is my mother (Fig. 2). She has enjoyed collecting grasshoppers since her childhood and still wants to go every year. Collecting grasshoppers requires work from early in the morning, as it is easy to collect them while they are wet from the morning dew. She still enjoys collecting them, despite the early morning start. The grasshoppers are kept alive for one night after they are collected to allow time for the feces to be expelled. The next day, they are fried or boiled and then the legs are removed as these are not suitable for eating. After being sun-dried, grasshoppers are cooked in soy sauce and sugar (Fig. 3). They are eaten in the autumn as a side dish or snack. Some people store them the whole year round.
When the silk industry in Japan was at its peak during the modern era, large numbers of pupae of Bombyx mori were discarded after having their silk removed. They were taken to food companies or sold to people living near the silk factories. The silkworm pupae were boiled with soy sauce before being packed. Packed food like this is still sold at food stores in Nagano prefecture in central Japan (Fig. 4).
Wasp pupae are popular as food in the mountainous regions of Japan. Yellow jackets Vespula spp., in particular, are eaten in many areas. Wasp-eating in Japan illustrates how people enjoy both collecting and eating yellow jacket wasps as part of their culture. Yellow jacket nests are found below ground in fields and mountains, making it rather difficult to locate them. Locals have devised a uniquely ingenious way to locate the nests.
Bait is used to attract the worker wasps. The wasps are then given small pieces of meat with tiny ribbons attached to carry back to the nest (Fig. 5). The ribbons make it easier to subsequently follow the wasps and locate the nest. Following the workers back to the nest requires teamwork: someone is needed to set the bait, someone to follow the wasps and someone to dig out the nest and sedate the wasps inside with smoke.
Some people even raise yellow jackets at the bottom of their gardens (Fig. 6). They are careful to place the nest somewhere where it will be sheltered from the elements. The wasps are protected from predators and given food. Rearing yellow jackets requires a certain combination of tender loving care, originality and ingenuity.
Some people even dare to go after the Asian giant hornet Vespa mandarinia, which is more dangerous because of its aggressive temperament and potent sting. Its larger size and delicious taste, however, make the risk worthwhile. The “hunters” follow the workers to the nest and dig it out. Special protective clothing has been developed to protect against the wasps' vicious attacks (Fig. 7).
Recipes for wasp dishes vary greatly from household to household, bringing a rich and varied autumn feast to the dinner table. They also provide the ideal accompaniments for sake. Food products made from wasps are popular delicacies, and even make great souvenirs (Fig. 8). Preparation takes much time and effort, but this provides an opportunity for the family to enjoy chatting together.
Nests containing living larvae are sold in the harvest season. Cooked or canned yellow jackets are sold in the central region of Japan. The supply of yellow jackets is declining despite the increase in demand. Nowadays, such foodstuffs are imported from other producing countries, such as Korea. Two species of Vespula (V. germanica, V. koreensis) are collected.
The Yellow Jacket Festival is held every year in central Japan, with people competing for the biggest nest. The nests are raised at home or collected in the fields and mountains. People gather for festivities celebrating the yellow jackets, seemingly oblivious to the risk of being stung (Fig. 9).
This manga illustration (Fig. 10) shows how, for people who live on insects, loving, caring, enjoying and eating all come together through their relationship with insects as part of their unique Asian culture and daily life shared with insects.
Longhorn beetle caterpillars
More than 40 years ago, when firewood was still used for cooking in Japan, people in mountainous areas ate beetle caterpillars found in woodlands. Caterpillars found in the woods are relatively easy to collect. I have heard many old men reminiscing about their fond memories of the caterpillars' delicious, sweet taste. This picture, showing an old man eating a roasted caterpillar (Fig. 11), brings back many memories for me.
Case study 2: Southeast Asia
The use of insects as food is remarkably diverse among the non-Islamic countries of Asia, and so just a few representative examples will be described here.
In Laos, seasonal variations in land-use based on rice cultivation provide a variety of natural resources that can be used for food products. A variety of animals and plants live in the paddies, adapting themselves to the conditions there throughout the year. Forty insect varieties are found and eaten in and around the paddy fields. Small-scale fishing, involving the catching of both fish and other small aquatic creatures, is widely practiced when there is water coverage. Aquatic insects such as diving beetles, water scavenger beetles, water scorpions, giant water bugs and dragonfly larvae are collected together.
After rice harvesting, the paddies become inhabited by creatures such as grasshoppers and frogs, which are caught both for personal consumption and for sale. The pest insects that appear during the rice growing season are also collected and eaten. Stinkbugs are among the local favorites. Many local people eat them for their delicious taste, as well as in an attempt to exterminate them. Such use of these pests may be regarded as a kind of resource development and food innovation.
In the middle of the dry season, women collect weaver ants in the forest. Weaver ants make their nests in trees. The women prepare special tools for catching the insects, made with a bamboo rod and a basket. When they find the nest, they break into it with the tip of the rod and a mixture of adult ants, larvae and pupae fall into the basket. The soldier ants can be very aggressive, and quickly climbed up my legs to bite me while I was observing. It was very dangerous. After removing the adult ants from the mixture in the basket, the larvae and pupae are cooked in soups, omelets and salads (Fig. 12).
Although there appears to be nothing in the paddy fields in the height of the dry season, there is a very valuable insect resident there. This is the dung beetle. In particular, it is the larvae and pupae that are popular as food. They feed on water-buffalo dung; hence the name. The larvae are collected just before they transform into pupae, when they are at their best. The larvae are said to be very delicious (Fig. 13).
The food chain exists in the fields of Laos and Northeastern Thailand where dung beetles are popular; water buffaloes living in the fields, dung beetles feeding on their dung, and the people who gather and eat the beetles. Here water buffaloes defecate, and the dung beetles gather to feed on the excrement. The insects roll the dung into balls, and lay their eggs inside, where the larvae will grow.
Although some people may be put off by the pungent smell, stinkbugs are also a seasonal favorite among the Laotian people. They are sold fried or live for home cooking (Fig. 14). The smell is removed by heating the insects. They are used for making paste and eaten with seasoning and vegetables as a side dish. These insects are collected in paddy fields or trees.
Insects sold at markets
Insects are sold as food products at local markets. They are sold live, fresh or cooked (Fig. 15). They are set out in small individual dishes or bowls. They are sometimes sold just a few insects (several grams) at a time. Live ones have their legs and wings plucked off so they don't crawl or fly away. Some insects are cooked at the market stalls so it is possible to get them fresh. Insects cooked at home are also sometimes brought in for sale.
The demand for insects at markets is increasing in the cities of Laos and Thailand due to population growth attributable to urbanization. Improvements in people's economic situation make the insects more affordable. There are specialist stalls selling only insects, and also stalls selling them as rice accompaniments alongside vegetables or fresh fish. Their prices are by no means cheap as they are veritable delicacies.
Edible insects in Laotian food culture
In Laotian cuisine, meals are composed of steamed sticky rice with side dishes and are usually accompanied by alcoholic drinks such as beer, spirits or rice wine. Insects are used as seasonal side dishes. Laotian people are also very particular about selecting good quality, tasty insects. The taste of the insects is described as “man-man”, which means a strong, oily taste. Some insects smell delicious. Some are spicy or really sour. They are real delicacies.
Traditionally, insects were collected or reared by people as part of a self-sufficient lifestyle. Nowadays, however, they are often bought as ingredients for food in urban areas, despite being very expensive. Women visiting the markets are very meticulous, inspecting each insect and choosing only the best for dinner.
Case study 3: Southern Africa
Grasshoppers are one of the main edible insects. The species that are used for food vary depending on ethnic group or regional area. They are usually collected in crop fields or in the bush (Fig. 16). However, in southern Africa there are occasional swarms of red locusts, which cause serious damage to crops. Most people living in rural areas have no effective method of deterring the swarms. These swarms do, on the other hand, provide an ideal opportunity to collect the locusts for food. Collecting them for food in this way may be regarded as a good way of dealing with the invasion while at the same time securing an abundant supply of food resources. The locusts can be stored if they are kept dry. If the farmers are able to sell the locusts at the markets, at least they can earn something despite the damage to the crops.
Caterpillars are typical of the edible insects found in southern Africa. They emerge in large quantities during a short period in the rainy season. Various species of caterpillars are eaten and can also be found at the markets. At least four species of caterpillars were found at markets in Zambia. The Mbunba people in Zambia eat 31 kinds of caterpillars while the Nkoya consider only 12 kinds to be edible.
Mopane worm Goninblasia belina, the caterpillar of the saturniid moth, is the most well-known edible caterpillar in the area. It is highly recommended, and people consider it to be as tasty as meat. These caterpillars are collected from the Mopane tree Cophane mopane, which grows in the region from the northern part of South Africa to Angola. This region is regarded as the “mopane zone”.
During the season when the caterpillars emerge, women take trips to the mopane zone to gather them. The caterpillars are picked by hand one by one from the trees and processed to dry. Dried caterpillars are stored for future use or sold to markets in stations or local shops throughout the year (Fig. 17). The dried mopane are fried in a pan with salt. Alternatively, they are stewed with chili, tomato, onion, herbs and oil, and eaten with maize meal, a staple food of the people in the region. These dried mopane are also good with beer or as snacks.
Stinkbugs Encosternum sp. are eaten in the northern part of South Africa by the Venda and Northern Sotho, in particular. They are also eaten by people in Zimbabwe, although the eating of stinkbugs does not extend to other areas. It is well known that stinkbugs have a very pungent smell, and they are aptly named in this respect. However, the application of heat eradicates the foul odor to reveal their delicious taste. Dried stinkbugs are sold at the markets during the winter (Fig. 18).
The diverse use of termites illustrates another characteristic of southern Africa. Termite mounds are a typical feature of the savanna landscape. The termites are eaten during their winged stage, when they take to the air in search of a mate (Fig. 19). Large numbers of these flying termites often emerge in the rainy season, especially in the evening after a heavy shower. Soldier termites are also collected by the Venda people. They are boiled and dried in the sun before being eaten (Fig. 19).
Insects eaten by the San of the central Kalahari Desert
The San people, who live in the central Kalahari Desert in Botswana, are considered to be the last of the hunter–gatherers. They use many of the natural resources found in their environment for food. Generally, the San are known as brave hunters who also collect a lot of plants. It is reasonable to think that insects, being so tiny, would have little value for them as food resources. However, for the San, insects are also considered valuable food resources. Several species of caterpillar, termite, and grasshopper are gathered, and can provide important dietary resources in the right seasons and situations.
The San eat many caterpillars. The intestines are first removed, and only the abdomen is eaten after being roasted in hot ash. This is a common method of preparing caterpillars for consumption. The intestines are removed even from small caterpillars, such as those of the noctuid moth. As they are too small to deal with individually in the same way as large caterpillars, the women grasp handfuls of them and squeeze the intestines out using their hands. They are then cooked in the same way. The custom of using caterpillars for food is well established. Caterpillars are resources that can be accessed without effort or difficulty. They are associated with subsistence activities and play an important role in daily life.
The contribution of insects to the diet as a food resource, however, is subject to seasonal limitations. Insects appear in the rainy season with considerable annual fluctuations. Some species of insects are collected for food despite their limited availability. Ants are used for salads, and several types of jewel beetle are mixed with berries. These insects are considered very tasty and are used to add flavor to other foods. This shows that edible insects are used for food because of their qualities and taste. The San make good use of edible insects, using a broad variety of species for an extensive dietary repertoire. As a result, it can be concluded that edible insects, becasue of their scarcity, often add more spice than substance to the diet of these people.
The use of insects is an important and integral part of subsistence and daily life, relating people with the natural environment. In Asia, this natural environment consists of a complexity of forests and paddy fields. Furthermore, insects are easily accessible for people, so there can be a very close relationship between people and insects. Thus, people often develop a familiarity with insects that inhabit the environment around them.
Edible insects are regarded as cultural resources reflecting a rich biodiversity. They represent an alternative source of natural food resources in remote or mountainous areas. People who eat insects have established a broad variety of methods for collecting and cooking the rich diversity of edible insect species that are available. However, increases in demand could lead to competition and overexploitation, resulting in the future decline of these resources. In areas affected by overdevelopment, insect habitats are also likely to decline. It is necessary to raise people's awareness of the importance of the use of insects for food to ensure that they are used in a sustainable manner, and to promote their proper use and conservation.
In summary, there are three important characteristics of insect use. The first is the diversity of insect use in daily life. The second is the awareness and use of insects in places where human activity and the natural environment merge. This is in particular seen in the subsistence activities of rice cultivation. The third is the role of insects in socio-cultural communication. This shows that an insect-eating culture reflects regional preferences and has a long tradition of socio-cultural significance.