Eating Ants (Or How All That’s Good Tastes Like Bacon)

I used to burn them with a magnifying glass when I was a kid. Yes, not the most humane, civilized moment in my youth, and since then it’s been a tense relationship.  Accidentally stepping into a fire-ant mound ranks as one of my least favorite things about Texas, and I usually respond with gallons of water and angry threats of world-wide conflagration.  However, there’s also a fascination with the oddly-shaped aliens and a matured understanding of our necessary cohabitation of the planet.  I’ve watched documentaries on their incredible strength, their highly organized colonies, their ferocious eating habits.  The Pulitzer-Prize winning, sociobiologist, and “father of biodiversity” E.O. Wilson loves ants, and his Nova special charts his lifetime study of ants and their behaviors, leading to startling conclusions about the natural world overall–including us.

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In his article recently published, Ants are Cool But The Teach Us Nothing, Wilson emphasizes that humans are very different from super organisms like ants that run almost entirely on instinct, while we have a very different reaction to behaviors forced upon us.

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But a new way to think of ants has appeared before me, though certainly a dietary idea that has long flourished throughout the world–eating ants.

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INGREDIENTS
1 pineapple

PREPARATION
Peel the pineapple and cut into 4 equal cubes.

FINISH AND PRESENTATION
4 saúva ants

Place a piece of pineapple on top of a serving dish and top with ant. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

In Alex Atala’s D.O.M. Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, the renowned chef offers a philosophy and a recipe for eating ants:

Alex Atala with a Pirarucu fish

“Which herbs did you put into this dish?”

“Ants.”

“I would like to know which HERBS you used in the recipe.”

“Son, there’s only ants.”

This conversation took place in São Miguel das Cacheiras in the very north of Brazil. The person asking about the herbs was myself. And the woman answering my questions was Dona Brazi, a member of one of the 23 ethnicities that inhabit the region and who sells delicious food in the town’s central square. She did not speak Portuguese very well and, after trying her food, I thought she had not understood my question. I wanted to know which herbs and seasonings she had used to make her delicacies. But she had understood perfectly what I was asking. And the answer was simple. The seasoning used in that recipe was ants.

The relationship between man and insect needs to be better understood. Eating insects has always been associated with periods of food shortage, as protein supplementation. Weird, ugly, with no appetite appeal and, generally speaking, not much flavor, insects have always been pushed to the side. In the few instances of urban consumption, they are presented mostly as a tourist attraction.

But the world eats insects without realizing it. For example, they are used to make the cochineal that gives the red tone to the strawberry yogurt you give your kids every day. They also provide red dye to the textile industry. It is our cultural interpretation of the act of taking an insect into our mouths that defines the thin line between the primitive and the modern.

In Brazil, a country nearly as large as the entire USA, there are many records of insect consumption. Not far from the city where I live, São Paulo, is a small region with a particular microclimate. In October, large queen ants more than 3 centimeters long sprout wings and start flying to create new colonies. An old, fun tradition in this region is to run after these ants, catch as many as one can, fry them and eat them – the last part of their bodies is chubby, like a large ball. They have two names – içá is what the local people all them, and tanajura is their name given in the caboclo culture, which comprises people of mixed Brazilian native and European ancestry. Brazilian women with generous bottoms are called tanajuras too. I don’t know if the ants gave the nickname to the women or vice-versa.

The only instance I know of a relationship between an and an edible insect that is not cultural nor a matter of protein supplement occurs in the northernmost tip of the Amazon, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The species eaten there are what we call saúvas in Brazil and hormingas limoneiras in Colombia and Venezuela. It was during one of my trips to the Rio Negro that I met Dona Brazi, with whom I was talking at the beginning of this section. In her city of São Miguel das Cahcoeiras, 90 percent of the population is native. Brazil’s official language, Portuguese, is only the second language. The most common language spoken there is Inhangatu, a combination of native languages created by evangelizing priests in an attempt to communicate with the hundreds of tribes in the period of Brazilian colonization.

This region, home to 23 ethnic groups speaking 21 languages, is one of the most protected areas of the Amazon. The work that anthropologists do here is of crucial relevance for the conservation of the area’s natural resource and the possibilities they offer. Just to give an idea, we now know that more than three hundred wild plant species have been domesticated by these ethnic groups. Some have not yet been described by science for use as food. And they risk disappearing, because their use has not been preserved.

One of these ethnic groups, called tucano, has a special relationship with the saúva ants. The insect is considered a delicacy and used as a spice would be. Dona Brazi presented me with a reduced tucupi broth. It was purple, almost black, with ants. The first time I tasted it, I was enchanted by the flavors. Dona Brazi’s ants have a strong note of lemongrass, supported by ginger and cardamom.

I invited Dona Brazi to come to São Paulo to teach my brigade about the wonders that she produced. She came and stayed with us. It was like receiving a shower of wisdom, a lot of information compressed into a very few words. When I made Dona Brazi try things that do not exist in the Amazon, such as lemongrass and ginger, she laughed and said that they tasted just like ants.  (38-39)

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So I wasn’t completely surprised when I read the following passage in Redzepi’s Journal from his Work in Progress:

“Chef, you’re not going to believe this.” he said proudly on Monday morning.  After inquiring at universities, emailing entomologists and biology students, talking to sales assistants at pet stores and translating Danish science documents he’d finally found an obscure little news story about a teacher feeding his young students chocolate-covered ants.  “I’ve been waiting like a child for this day !” Trevor exclaimed.  The news quickly spread through the kitchen.  “They’re here!” everyone shouted to each other, leaving their half-filleted fish on cutting boards and running to the test kitchen.  “Come on Trevor,” Rosio said as he peeled layer after layer of tape off the package, “open the fucking box already.”  With a final wrench, he pulled the top off and we all peered down at the little plastic container swarming with ants.  Trevor was the first one to dare.  He took a live ant and popped it in his mouth.  We all watched, wide-eyed, in silence as he chewed, registering every little thing that happened in his mouth.  It took him two or three seconds to go from skeptical and concentrated to convinced and excited.  “Oh my God,” he said.  “They’re so strong.  Holy shit . . . they taste like lemongrass.”  (178)

lemongrass

So the chefs at Noma taste, they chew, they swallow, they think, they test and then they serve ants.  Here’s the recipe:

Deep-fried kale: 4 curly kale branches, grapeseed oil, samphire powder.

Bouquet: 2 baby romaine leaves, halved lengthways, 16 large chickweed stems, 4 large watercress stems, 4 nasturtium leaves with long stems, 4 golden nettle stems.

Serving: 50g crème fraîche, 24 black ants (or any other ant with a distinct citrus flavor).

Deep-fried kale

Remove the lower leaves from the kale branches.  Blanch the stems of the branches for 5 seconds.  Cool in ice water and dry thoroughly.  Heat the oil to 170 degrees C (340 degrees F) and dip the kale leaves in, holding them by the stem, for about two minutes until almost crisp.  Drain on paper towels.  Preheat the oven to 55 degrees C (130 degrees F) and crisp the deep-fried kale in it for 30 minutes.  Dust with the samphire powder.

Bouquet

Create a bouquet with half a baby romaine leaf, 4 long chickweed stems, a watercress stem, a nasturtium leaf, a golden nettle stem and a branch of cripsy deep-fried kale.  Tie the bouquets with butcher’s twine.  Repeat three more times.

Serving

Spoon some crème fraîche onto 4 small plates, make a divot of green into the crème fraîche and ants to serve.

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I must admit I’ve been possessed by the foraging idea as I’ve read Redzepi’s work and I know now my next step–walking outside, finding an ant, preferably not a fire ant, and putting in my mouth . . . or maybe ordering Giant Toasted Leafcutter Ants, which apparently taste like bacon.  Done! Bon Appétit!

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