Insects on the menu

Insects are hitting Perth consumers like never before. Video: Oliver Lane.

Fried crickets may not be for everyone but they are making their way onto more plates in Western Australia.

The health and environmental benefits of their consumption are already known to almost two billion people across the world as well as First Nations peoples in WA.

Indigenous Australians have consumed native insects for millennia. The collection of these insects was done in relation to the season. WA director of the First Nations Bush Food and Botanicals Alliance Australia, Pat Mamanyjun Torres, says harvesting insects was done with the health of the planet and ecosystem in mind.

“That’s very much the place of strength where Aboriginal people come from, because they’re very aware on how to make sure that we don’t over-harvest any one particular species,” she says.

Pat Mamanyjun Torres at a table with bushfood products in packages in front of her. Behind her is Indigenous artwork.
Pat Mamanyjun Torres operates a bushfood business from Broome. Photo: Mayi Harvests.
Listen to more from Pat Mamanyjun Torres.

Ms Torres says the larvae of moths, known as a witchetty grub, were often collected and either eaten raw or roasted. The insect is known for its high levels of fat and protein, as well as for its buttery and nutty taste. Whole insects were eaten, with moths and grasshoppers collected for food after the wet season when the insects are fattest.

Insects have been eaten across Western Australia for millenia. Sources: About grasshoppers, honey ants and whitchetty grubs.

New products in the edible insect industry are being designed to be more appealing to Australians. In the chocolate industry, creators of traditional chocolate products are incorporating roasted crickets into their products.

Martin Black, co-owner of the Margaret River Chocolate Company, is rolling out chocolate cricket clusters.

He describes edible insects as having a “nice crunch with a malty aftertaste”.

A gloved hand holding a cluster of crickets mixed with chocolate in a small brown muffin case.
Crickets and chocolate might not be a traditional combination but some chocolate makers are confident they make a great pairing. Photo: Oliver Lane.

Mr Black says he has found when people who are initially sceptical about eating insects actually try them, they are usually pleasantly surprised.

“Not everybody is going to be interested in eating them and that’s fine,” he says.

Martin Black

“I think the people will probably try them at first almost as a curiosity sort of thing to see what it’s all about and I think from there some people will go ‘actually, that’s not too bad’.”

Hear more from Martin Black.

Mr Black says he has wanted to feature to edible insects in products for some time but struggled to find a reliable, local supplier – until now.

GrubsUp Australia founder Paula Pownall operates her edible insect business from a shed on her Pinjarra property. She is the only producer of insects for human consumption in WA and just one of 14 in Australia.

The company produces crickets and mealworms which are sold whole and roasted. The bugs also come in products like a cricket dukkha, to be served with olive oil and bread, or cricket salt and pepper granules.

GrubsUp Australia founder Paual Pownall holding up her products, organic cricket powder, roasted mealworms and cricket dukkha at her house.
GrubsUp Australia founder Paula Pownall sells a range of her products. Photo: Oliver Lane.

When the business started in 2017, Ms Pownall would receive an order roughly once a month. Now, she says they’re seeing weekly orders across many of her products.

“We’re getting multiple purchases of all products weekly and also our restaurant market has picked up quite a lot since we started,” she says.

Research from the CSIRO predicts the edible insect market will grow to a $10 million industry within the next five years.

Edible insect species are especially common in countries like Mexico and China.

Ms Mamanyjun Torres believes collaboration between industry and Indigenous Australians is key. She says other agriculture businesses have ignored or stolen knowledge of the land, which has led to environmental damage.

Ms Torres, who is a specialist harvester of types of native bush food, says there needs to be much more collaboration with traditional knowledge. She suggests operating many small family farms rather than large mass production factories, as she believes it would be a better way to protect culture and the environment.

“One of the good ways is for what they call today a circular economy,” she says.

“If you don’t act now to do something … there will be many more farming families that have got no businesses because there will be no bees, there will be no insects.”

Pat Mamanyjun Torres

Insects are also a commonplace food in many countries around the world, especially in Asia, Africa and Central America. In China, grasshoppers and silkworms are some of the roughly 25 species typically used in restaurants. In Mexico, ant larvae and water fly pupae are both sought after features in dishes.

Insects are eaten all around the world and provide an important aspect in many cultures. Sources: About insects in the Congo, India, Thailand, Mexico and China.

One restaurant in Perth which has crickets on the menu is Street Eats in Northbridge. Owner Ash Chippa says insects are a good way of incorporating international cuisines into the Australian food scene.

“I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and the main thing that I found was the amount of street food that you have as you travel around the world … the different types of cuisines and different style of food that you can taste,” he says.

“In Australia, there was nothing in the restaurant space where that was available. So we created Street Eats from that.”

Restaurant owner Ash Chippa hold his fried cricket dish in the kitchen of his restaurant.
Ash Chippa says insect dishes are making their way into menus. Photo: Oliver Lane.
A close up shot of a fried cricket dish with a green puree, tomato and red onion garnish with slices of radish on top.
Fried crickets are the centrepiece of this dish at Street Eats Eatery. Photo: Oliver Lane.

According to Dr Diana Bogueva, an edible insect researcher at Curtin University, insects like crickets consist of almost 70 percent protein and are high in folate, iron and vitamin B-12.

She says having Western countries on board with edible insects can help reduce the environmental impact of meat, particularly given Australia ranks high for meat consumption.

Dr Bogueva says more than 80 per cent of the world’s farmlands are taken up by the beef and dairy industries despite the fact they only contribute 37 per cent of the world’s protein. On top of this, the industry contributes to more than half of food-related CO2 emissions.

Insects have many environmental benefits when compared to traditional protein sources. Data from: CSIRO Research.

Despite Australia having one the largest meat consumption rates in world Dr Bogueva says Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in embracing edible insects. She says one of these reasons is a ‘yuck’ factor that exists around eating insects.

“I wish people were braver to try something but I think the yuck factor will be a factor that will stop people to truly embrace insects as part of their diet,” she says

“Sincere strategies can foster the willingness of people to try insects and some efforts make consumers more familiar … not only rely on braver consumers that will try insects but incorporate them into products and food option that could become a regular part of consumers daily diets.”

There are many reasons why people in Australia aren’t eating insects. Credit: Oliver Lane.

Ms Torres says to grow the industry in an ethical way, moving forward will require businesses to be socially, ethically and economically aware.

“They would be looking at involving Indigenous people into business with them, which could create a different kind of marketplace and a different kind of relationships within Australia,” she says.

“So if we support each other’s first nation businesses, that creates an economy where we’re all growing.”

Close up of cricket cluster products in brown paper muffin liner.
Chocolate markers are finding unique ways to make edible insects more enticing. Photo: Oliver Lane.