Thursday, January 21, 2010
The Joys of Cooking... With Insects(Part II)
Be sure to check out Part I for pictures and descriptions of the food!
Once the dishes were cleared and the excitement had died down, we sat down with Mr. Uchiyama to help make sense of the whole situation. He was accommodating and jovial, a geyser of positive energy bubbling below his cool exterior. For his seemingly eccentric eating habits, he was more in touch with the world than all the "normal" folk living amongst Tokyo's concrete jungle.
TSB (T): How did you get started as an insect chef?
Shoichi Uchiyama (U): I grew up in Nagano where bugs were always on the menu, though not by my choice (laughs). When I moved to Tokyo with my family, my days of snacking on grasshoppers stayed behind in the countryside. Then, around 10 years ago, I happened upon a special event at the Tama Zoo featuring edible insects from around the world. That first crunchy bite brought my childhood memories flooding back to me.
Reconnecting with my youth gave my life a new direction. I practiced on my own, discovering what was delicious and what was vile by trial and error. Around 3 or 4 years ago I went public with my blog. The overwhelmingly positive reaction spurred me forward to treat this as something more than just a hobby.
T: I can’t imagine starting from scratch. What sort of failures have you produced over the years?
U: Grubs are impossible. You see them all fat and juicy and think they’d be the perfect ingredient, while in reality they just turn to mush! They spend their lives eating rotten debris underground and this diet is reflected in the taste. Trust me, grubs aren’t worth the effort.
T: Have you ever had any problems eating things that were best left under the log?
U: Most people assume that wasps and spiders are inedible because of their venom. In reality, all it takes to detoxify them is a red-hot skillet. Yes, the heat actually nullifies the poison! Blister beetles are the arsenic of insect cooking. They secrete a nasty chemical called cantharidin that you don’t want anywhere near you.
T: Your online niche is spreading into mainstream magazines and television appearances. Why the surge in popularity?
U: People have gotten sick of looking up at skyscrapers and are ready to look down at the world at their feet, to get back to their roots. Japan’s realized that it’s over-dependent on imported food, and self-sufficiency has become a real issue. If we’re farming our own vegetables, why not our own protein as well? Wasps are an excellent source of amino acids.
Think of all the food that goes to waste around you: Cicadas dying at the end of summer, grasshoppers in the fall. And stop using pesticide on wasps and ants, it makes them inedible! Exterminators could run a lucrative side business vacuuming up these so-called “pests” for resale.
T: You need a celebrity backing you to get the word out.
U: They let me go toe-to-toe with television personalities but no one takes what I’m doing seriously. The shock factor is still too great for most.
T: If herbivore men are passive, and carnivore men are aggressive, then what are insectivore men?
U: They don’t have any taboos regarding food and are interested in new things. They place a high premium on healthy living.
T: Your current venue, Yoru no Hirune, can only host around 20 people. Do you plan to expand in the future?
U: Right now we have a hothouse culture. The small membership keeps us close and our passion for what we do fuels each other’s fire. You’ll never find a more varied group. One guy is a monkey tracker, this guy hunts wild boar, and the nice lady who provided today’s cockroaches is a translator of Latin.
T: It feels like one big extended family.
U: I wish more parents would bring their children! Kids aren’t as prejudiced as adults and would be more keen to the idea of eating bugs. More zoos should hold insect-eating festivals like the one that got me started 10 years ago.
Of course, my work can only reach so many people in Japan. I’ve published a cookbook of Japanese insects, but I’d like to put out an English version tailored to the arthropods of Western countries.
T: Thanks for the grub!