Entomophagy in Japan

My story on bug-eating was on the front page of the Japan Foreign Correspondent’s Club magazine this month. Hope it’s not on display in the restaurant.

The photos were picked up by the UK’s Telegraph newspaper too and run as a slideshow. (Many thanks to the Telegraph’s generous food critic Japan correspondent Julian Ryall for tipping me off to this story. It was one of the most fun, albeit stomach churning, stories I’ve done in a while.

If this has wet your appetite, I’ve pasted the text of the story below.

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Shoichi Uchiyama first experienced the exquisite pleasures of entomophagy (insect-eating) in 1998. He and some friends had visited an exhibition on the subject. Inspired, on the way back they stopped near a river, caught some moth caterpillars, and  barbecued them for dinner. It was love at first bite – Uchiyama had caught the entomophagy bug.

A decade later Uchiyama is Japan’s leading insect-eating evangelist. He has a Japanese-language blog on the topic: http://musikui.exblog.jp/ that gets 400 visitors a day and is the author of a recent cookbook on bug cuisine, Tanoshii Konchu Ryori (Fun Insect Cooking).

At his suburban Tokyo home, Uchiyama offers me some Taiwanese tagame (a kind of giant water bug). I politely decline and tell him I’ve just had lunch. Uchiyama turns the freshly boiled insect upside down, cuts through its underbelly with a pair of kitchen scissors, then nibbles on the tender yellowy meat inside. “The flesh is quite fruity; it smells like bananas, but the taste is more like pears,” he says. I’m happy to take his word for it.

On his living room table sits a feast of creepy crawly cuisine. There is a plate of sushi with toppings of Japanese cicada, pregnant joro spider, sakura moth caterpillar and Madagascar cockroach. Uchiyama’s wife, Chisato, helped him prepare the praying mantis tofu and locusts on sticks. “Deep frying is the best way to cook insects,” says Mrs. Uchiyama, “like fish and chips.”

The Uchiyamas both hail from mountainous Nagano, where there is a long tradition of insect-eating due to the lack of easy access to protein in the form of seafood. Locals are particularly partial to locusts, stonefly larvae and silkworm cocoons cooked in sugar and soy sauce. The Uchiyamas say it was a relatively short step to sampling more unusual bugs. Uchiyama says that there are at least 10 kinds of tasty bugs to catch near his home. During the summer he collects his own cicadas (“they freeze well”). There are hundreds more edible insects worldwide, he notes.

Uchiyama also heads an insecteating club that meets once a month and holds events to catch and cook bugs. Spring is larvae time, cicadas are in season insummer, and autumn offers fine locusts. Surprisingly, poisonous bugs are rare, Uchiyama claims. “Insects are much safer than, say, mushrooms,” he says. Insects can also be eaten raw “as long as they are fresh.” Are there any bad-tasting bugs? Apparently stag beetles eat a lot of rotten vegetation, so are best avoided.

Uchiyama is a passionate entomophagy advocate. “Insects are very nutritious and they are all around us,” he enthuses, suggesting they could be a solution to food shortages and even food-safety worries. Insects are high in protein and low in fat, Uchiyama continues. The shells boast lots of calcium and provide plenty of roughage. “It would be great if elementary schools could teach insect-eating,” he muses. “Teachers could take the kids down to the local river to catch bugs, then cook them together.”

These days everyone wants to know about where their food comes from, so what better than rearing your own protein source? It’s impossible to keep a pig or cow in a Tokyo apartment, but a small tank of cockroaches would be very practical, he notes. In the end, I don’t try any of Uchiyama’s cuisine, using the excuse of being too busy taking photos. Or perhaps as an Englishman I’ve had plenty of opportunities tosample unpalatable-looking food.

“Insects aren’t dirty,” he stresses, as I wrinkle my nose at a toasted locust. “Humans were made to eat them and they are good for our bodies. Try them once and you will be hooked.”


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Here’s a link to the full gallery on my archive: insect eating in Japan

10 Responses to “Entomophagy in Japan”

  1. Daniel Fath says:

    I think it’s great. Mind you, I’ll not be out turning over rocks in search of a meal, but the passion and open-mindedness are refreshing. That he found a spouse who’s into entomophagy too is cool.

  2. That is some sushi I’ll pass on I think. Wow.

  3. tony says:

    They were a lovely couple. Nothing like sharing a hobby!

  4. Hmmm…I may have to give this a go sometime. Insects on their own aren’t too appealing to me, but I bet they’d complement a ball of sushi-rice darned well.

  5. TokyoTom says:

    Tony, nice photos and interesting story.

    Here’s an English video clip of Uchiyama and others enjoying a bug feast this past Christmas: http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/video/Christmas-Grub-In-Tokyos-Insect-Restaurant/Video/200812315180526?lid=VIDEO_15180526

    I suspect that in a few decades we’ll all be eating more bugs, as population growth, strip-mined oceans and limits to raising livestock & poulty will drive up the price of protein – the past as prologue, so to speak. Doesn’t insect-eating still remain a relatively large market in China and other places, for precisely the same reason?

    Telegraph article indicates that you’re aware that tsukudani’d grasshoppers are not too hard to get ahold of, but I understand that there are still a few yakitori places in Tokyo that serve roasted bee larvae.

    There seem to be plenty of Japanese web pages discussing traditional bug crackers, etc. Another gaijin put together this collection of them: http://washokufood.blogspot.com/2008/04/konchuu-ryoori-insects.html

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  7. What a wonderful article on a great idea!

    I host an edible insect cooking show on my website, http://www.girlmeetsbug.com, and I would love to use some of Mr. Uchiyama’s recipes. Where can I find his book?

    Thank you!

    Daniella Martin

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