From offal to breast milk, experimental eating is grabbing headlines, and Mexican street food chain Wahaca’s new grasshopper dish is no exception. While the high protein content is a potential selling point, the real offering is a taste of authenticity – the introduction of genuinely ‘foreign’ foods to a cosmopolitan London.
Previously the preserve of the occasional enthusiastic journalist returning from South East Asia, an emerging culture of experimentation has seen creepy crawly snacks gain traction in the West. Yet despite this, the ‘yuck’ label remains; novelty – and a degree of bravado – are still intrinsic to their appeal. With the recent horse meat scandal eroding consumer confidence in affordable meat, is the time right for novelty sustainable dishes like Wahaca’s grasshopper fondue to broaden their remit?
In March 2013, Thomasina Miers’ Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca began trialling a new experimental dish at their Southbank pop-up branch. A new take on the traditional fondue dish, ‘chapulines fundido’ combines an ample helping of rich melting cheese with a classic Mexican favourite: grasshoppers. Sourced directly from Oaxaca in Mexico, where grasshoppers are a common snack, the dish is a powerful testimony to Wahaca’s very authentic take on Mexican street food.
Whether or not the dish will go on the menu of the rest of their restaurants will depend on customer feedback, which Wahaca encourage through voting via Twitter with a #ChapulinYES or #ChapuliNO. This social media test will not only prove a useful tool for Wahaca but also hint to the general opinion surrounding insect eating, and people’s readiness to move beyond the ‘yuck factor’. According to Miers, it’s all in the socio-cultural perception – after all, we eat shrimps and prawns – so it is just a question of creating a dish that will appeal.
While previously eating insects has been regarded as on par with promoting breast milk ice cream, people are increasingly beginning to entertain the idea of insect eating as something perfectly normal. Yet, emphasising the nutritional and sustainable factors of insect eating would not be enough to drive a significant cultural shift. Wahaca recognises this, introducing grasshoppers as ‘real’ Mexican food in line with its overall offering of ‘authenticity’.
In the West, people are culturally preconditioned to find insects ‘creepy’ and ‘yucky’ from an early age. Even when it comes to the semiotics of animal meat in the West, our idea of ‘meat’ is commonly associated with the uniform sausage or burger shapes, and is generally as far removed as possible from the living animal it comes from. To put this into perspective, consider the Asian meat stall, where animal parts are easily identifiable and there’s no shying away from the odd eyeball or head.
Making insects palatable to this part of the world wouldn’t just require R&D, but also the cultural rebranding of insects as a good source of protein. A good example of this is the Ento project, launched in 2012 by a team of graduate students at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, which tackled the introduction of edible insects to the Western diet through design. As their website states, “it’s not just about introducing a new food, it’s about understanding human perceptions and psychology, then using the design of innovative experiences and strategic thinking to drive cultural change.”