When the 2022 FIFA World Cup was moved from its usual summer spot to this past November, the decision didn’t only disrupt the routines of soccer fans and leagues the world over.
During the World Cup’s usual months of June and July, the northeastern state of Meghalaya in India hosts a rare but regular visitor: a cicada that the local Khasi community calls Niangtaser. Right on cue, the Niangtaser appears once every four years, a few weeks before the World Cup usually starts, and disappears a little before the tournament ends, earning it the sobriquet, “World Cup Insect”. Known scientifically as Chremistica ribhoi, since it is only found in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district, this periodic cicada spends the first four years of its life underground, feeding on the sap of bamboo roots. Thereafter, while the World Cup is in progress, infant cicadas come out every night, and hunters have a 45-minute window to pick them before their wings open. What adds to the thrill of the chase is that, in this part of the world, the Ninagtaser is a much sought-after delicacy.
This idea of insects as a delicacy is alien to most western and urban food cultures, which instead associate insects with times of extreme food scarcity. Mainstream interest in edible insects as a sustainable food source is less than a decade old, spurred by a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2013 which proposed insects as a solution to rising levels of food insecurity. But for some communities around the world, including indigenous groups and forest-dwelling and forest-dependent people, entomophagy — the practice of eating insects — has historically been an integral part of the dietary culture. Globally, 2,111 species are consumed in 140 countries. In India alone, more than 300 species of insects are eaten, primarily by indigenous and Dalit communities.
The chutney is so popular it prompted one district in Odisha, where it is known as kai chutney, to apply for a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag, which would put it on a par with vaunted ingredients like Kashmiri saffron and Darjeeling tea.
The Ninagtaser may be a rare festive food for Meghalaya’s indigenous Khasi community, but a host of other insects are commonplace in the kitchens of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and other parts of the northeast. While silkworms, both pupae and adult, are the most common, adult bees and bee larvae, ants and ant larvae, wasps, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, locusts, snails and giant water bugs are all part of the region’s culinary heritage. Red weaver ants and winged termites are especially popular in the eastern states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, as well as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana in the south. Other species like the Niangtaser and the Asian giant hornet are relatively rare and highly prized.
Harvesting these insects is a test of patience, skill, and — when harvesting ants and insects that sting, such as hornets, wasps and bees — pain thresholds. Yet, for the traditional practitioners of entomophagy in India, the nutritional benefits of edible insects make the effort worthwhile. As well as contributing to an environmentally sustainable diet, edible insects are a rich source of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. As such, they are a crucial source of sustenance for socially and economically marginalized communities who have to make ingenious use of the limited resources available to them. These communities know precisely which insects to eat and which to avoid, how to harvest with an eye on conservation, how to avoid negative reactions or allergies associated with certain species, and the nutritional and medicinal properties of each.
Preparing insects for eating is much simpler than harvesting them. In Maharashtra’s Mang community (a Dalit sub-caste), honey bee larvae are tossed with red chilli powder and onions. Arunachal’s Nyishi and Galo people fry and eat short-horned grasshoppers, shorn of their wings, with salt or stuffed into bamboo pipes, smoked dry, mixed with chilli and salt and added to rice meals. In Assam, the Bodo and Kachari communities stir fry eri silkworm pupae with salt, turmeric, green chillies and crushed garlic. In Meghalaya, silkworms are turned into a chutney with bamboo shoots, lemon and basil; bee larvae can be boiled, or they are fried with lots of chillies or garlic; and winged termites are roasted, fried or eaten raw. In Tamil Nadu, adult red ants along with ant larvae and eggs are ground with spices and made into a soup. But the most widespread use of red ants is in a fiery red chutney. The chutney is so popular it prompted one district in Odisha, where it is known as kai chutney, to apply for a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag, which would put it on a par with vaunted ingredients like Kashmiri saffron and Darjeeling tea.
With or without a GI tag, however, kai chutney is unlikely to enjoy the hallowed status of Kashmiri saffron (or Darjeeling tea) any time soon. Edible insects have been an integral part of ecologically conscious and diverse food cultures of indigenous and Dalit communities, long before sustainability became a buzzword. But among India’s urban, metropolitan and upper caste food cultures, they remain objects of skepticism and derision. The gently growing realization that insects may be the most viable solution to the protein needs of a climate- and food-insecure world has done little to change attitudes.
[W]hen Saikia cooked silkworms on the Netflix show Menu Please, she again received a barrage of hate on social media for highlighting such “dirty foods”.
Ignorance about the eclectic food cultures of the northeast and the benefits of such varied diets is at the root of the disgust towards eating insects, says Mumbai-based chef Gitika Saikia, who hails from Assam’s indigenous Kachari community. In 2015, Saikia introduced some insect-based dishes at a pop-up she created to celebrate Rongali Bihu (Assamese new year), but found few takers for her stir-fried silkworm pupae and red ant larvae mashed with duck eggs. While some responded with enthusiasm, many of her regular guests did not turn up. Despite the rebuff, Saikia persisted, showcasing these dishes at various pop-ups and culinary events. But she’s noticed little change in attitudes since her first attempt. In 2020, when Saikia cooked silkworms on the Netflix show Menu Please, she again received a barrage of hate on social media for highlighting such “dirty foods”.
This derision of insects as “dirty food” is not a one-off. At its core are food taboos linked to caste, class and ethnicity. In the culinary imagination of the politically and economically powerful higher-caste Hindus, which projects its own cuisine as India’s mainstream cuisine, foods consumed by marginalized indigenous and Dalit communities are deemed “impure” or “unclean” and relegated to the bottom of a national food hierarchy. In this upper caste reasoning, the food cultures of the northeast, rich in fermented foods and animal proteins such as pork and beef as well as insects, are categorized “within a civilizational framework of savagery” and dismissed as “primitive” and “dirty”, explains Naga anthropologist Dolly Kikon. Similarly, the food of Dalit communities, who have historically been forced to subsist on scraps, leftovers and discarded animals and animal parts, having been excluded from Hindu society due to their caste, is derided based on an upper caste logic — or lack thereof — of filth and contamination.
To understand the disgust towards edible insects it is crucial to also understand these food hierarchies. For upper caste, upper and middle class and metropolitan India, insects are taboo because they represent the food of the social and ethnic other. They are not seen as pathways to a cheaper, more environmentally sustainable and protein-forward diet, but as symbols of poverty and deprivation. In turn, these taboos ensure that food practices that do not conform to upper caste norms and logic remain firmly invisible in India’s mainstream food culture.
Jahnavi Uppuleti, who hails from the leather tanning animal scavenging Madiga community (Dalit sub-caste) in Telangana, writes how roasted winged termites, which where the quintessential monsoon snack of her childhood, figure nowhere in the narrative of monsoon cuisine. Among the younger generation of indigenous and Dalit communities, like Uppuletti herself, this invisibility produces a sense of shame about eating insects. The young, especially those who migrate to urban settings, want to avoid being associated with these eating practices because of the “dirty food” tag and the fear of conflict with upper caste communities. The difficulty accessing edible insects in metropolitan cities further distances them from the foods of their ancestors, says Saikia, who has to travel to Assam to procure the insects she serves at her pop-ups.
The solution is to not rely on insects that traditional insect-eating communities already eat.
Tentative attempts at marketing edible insects in India have, thus far, been limited to silkworm pupae produced by the sericulture industry. The Madhya Pradesh Silk Federation has been selling canned silkworm pupae since 1946, but there have been few takers. In the late 2000s, the federation began to explore ways to develop silkworm pupae into food, experimenting with recipes for pickles and chutneys. The Central Sericultural Research and Training Institute of Mysore has, similarly, been experimenting with processing leftover silkworm pupae into food. More recently, a few online platforms based in the northeastern states have started sourcing edible insects to metropolitan cities. However, apart from people of indigenous northeastern origin and a few high-end restaurants that use them for novelty, their products are struggling to break through.
Besides, as Saikia points out, many edible insects, such as certain varieties of water beetles and crickets, are disappearing because of environmental changes, deforestation and the degradation and destruction of their habitats. If insects are to be introduced into mainstream diets, we have to counter not only food-related taboos but also educate people on sustainable harvesting practices, she says.
The solution is to not rely on insects that traditional insect-eating communities already eat, says Bengaluru-based permaculture designer Tansha Vohra. Instead, a sustainable approach would be to tap urban ecosystems for edible insects that may be freely and widely available. As part of the Boochi project she started in 2021, Vohra and her research collaborator, Nagaland-based entomologist Lobeno Mozhui, have been documenting cuisines across India that use insects as food and collecting recipes of different insects that are eaten across the country. These explorations have led her to the black soldier fly, an insect that grows in the compost created from kitchen waste, and is “perfectly edible”. Another example is the already popular red weaver ant, which is available in almost every garden, even in urban settings.
As someone located in a decidedly urban and upper caste milieu, she sees her project as using past and present instances of entomophagy to demystify this eating practice. Much like Saikia, Vohra too has to contend with rejection or hesitation when she talks about her project. But she insists there is a section of the population, albeit statistically small, who are open to the idea of introducing insects into their diet. However, before we rush to market edible insects, we have to ensure that the communities whose food this has historically been are food secure first, as far as this ingredient is concerned, she emphasizes.
Ultimately, any attempt to popularize insects for eating in India must first confront the taboos that reject them — and by implication those that eat them — as impure, dirty and primitive. Rather than framing the conversation on edible insects as the “future” of food, we need to acknowledge the historical importance of entomophagy and that it continues to be integral to the eating cultures of India’s indigenous and Dalit communities. Above all, we need to resist seeing this eating practice through the narrow, limited lens of upper caste metropolitan India, which associates it with shame and poverty. We must instead reimagine insect eating as a sustainable practice, born out of a deep knowledge of the environment, that has created systems of resilience for people and communities for centuries.