At her street food outlet near Kensington Market, Cookie Martinez prepares empanadas each work day. There is chicken and beef for the empanadas.
But sometimes, in the bread part of the empanadas, she adds mealworm powder in the dough, cricket salt, and whole crickets in the filling.
Her customers can plainly see the torsos and heads of the crickets.
At Martinez’s outlet, Gustavo Holloway, 26, from Chile, held a whole cricket between his fingers. Holloway ordered “cricket snax,” a little box filled with insects.
“This is like the movie Lion King. Hakuna matata,” Holloway said.
Then there was a cracking sound as Holloway bit through the insect for the first time in his life.
“It’s a little bit salty, but I can’t compare it to anything really,” he said. “However, it’s not bad.”
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is estimated that two billion people eat insects regularly in the world. There are over 1900 species that are used as food. FAO also pointed out that eating insects is not a new thing. They’ve always been a part of people’s diets somewhere.
But why would anyone eat cricket, worms and ants as a normal function of eating a meal?
Otto Selenius is an insect expert and researcher at Turku University in Finland.
“The population is growing all the time. We have to find more sustainable solutions for the food production in order to feed everybody,” he said.
Meat production is not as efficient as insect production, Selenius added, and it demands more water and pollutes much more.
“Different estimations say that by the year 2060 meat consumption will grow 75 per cent from current (levels),” Selenius said. “That means we need new ways to get protein.”
Selenius said that insects have about as much protein and fat as chicken, fish, beef or pork, but the fat is mostly unsaturated, healthier than saturated fat. Insects also contain healthy amino acids, calcium, zinc and iron, he said.
At El Catrin, a Mexican restaurant in the Distillery District of Toronto, Olivier Le Calvez works as an executive chef. He has used cricket dishes for two and a half years now.
“It started as a special in the beginning, to see how people react,” he said.
People’s reactions were positive, he added, and now crickets are a permanent part of El Catrin’s menu.
“We had them two or three weeks as a special and after that we added it as a side dish,” he said.
Le Calvez says El Catrin has regular customers who come at least once a month and add crickets to their salads or dip them in guacamole.
“We sell maybe two or three cricket portions a day on average. Sometimes it can be five or six, some days we don’t sell them at all,” he said. “They are expensive, $9 an ounce. But an ounce is a lot.”
El Catrin buys its supply of crickets already dried. Right now, the restaurant features them with lime and chilli.
“People say it tastes like a crunchy chip, earthy,” Le Calvez said. “They don’t have much flavour. But that’s a good thing. You can’t say they taste bad.”
The problem is, the image of insects can be negative.
“In ‘Fear Factor,’ ‘Survivor’ and other (reality) competition shows people eat or face insects that are purposely shown in a disgusting way because of the shock value,” Selenius said.
Selenius explained that restaurants should use insects in people’s favourite food to make them seem more ordinary.
“A worm burger in which some of the meat is replaced with mealworms, for example. If crickets on a pizza is too horrible, mince them into the dough,” Selenius said. “And in Western world typically ‘if it’s just covered with chocolate or deep-fried, people eat anything.’”
Cookie Martinez has sold insects from her street outlet since 2013. Insects are only a small part of her business.
“Who knows, maybe I end up selling only insects some time,” she said.
Martinez claimed that insect might have “a sushi effect” in the future.
“People are now ready to eat sushi – raw fish. I think some day everybody eats insects, just like they eat sushi now,” she said.
“Edible insects have much more potential, to become more than just a a trendy food,” he said. “They are diverse, easy to use. Their nutritional values are great and for the consumers who think it matters, insects are ecological.”