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Misha Sukyas: in Thailand, an insect kebab is like candy floss for us

Taste / -

Misha Sukyas

Milanese, of Armenian origins, after studying in Artistic High School Misha Sukyas became a self-taught chef, an architect of taste structures with a personal path as original as his creations.

His first culinary experience, as a very young man, was in a family restaurant in Cabo San Pucas, in Mexico, where he became fascinated by the atmosphere reigning in the kitchen and the sensation of belonging to a variegated ship’s crew. Being a traveler by nature, his impulses then led him to Holland, to Marc Philippart’s Van Vlaanderen restaurant in Amsterdam, then to Sydney, where he worked at the Pier Restaurant with Grant King, and then with Australian star-chef Peter Gilmore at The Quay. This was followed by multiple professional and human experiences from China to Indonesia, and a sabbatical year in India. In other words, he has been driven constantly by a thirst for adventures in taste and in culture around the world, and from this he has slowly developed his own avant-garde cuisine completely transcending frontiers. Along the way he has tasted food that most Europeans would steer well clear of, which is why, for instance, he has no problems with inventing haute cuisine dishes including insects.
 
Why eat insects?
Because in numerous cultures it’s perfectly normal, and it’s good to live without too many mental barriers. We have erected barriers between different nations, forgetting that the Earth is a globe, a sphere for which divisions are alien. We still talk about English or French or Indian cuisine, without realizing that the world has become truly global and everything is intermixing. It has become meaningless to worry about contamination, we need to embrace it and create a different approach to eating, which takes us outside the little garden where we started. Life is adventure, you can’t fence it off from the world. I believe in pathway cooking, cooking which journeys through the world.
 
Why did you decide to include insects in some of your dishes?
I see them as part of a global cooking concept. If certain populations have eaten them for millennia, there must be a good reason for it, and until you’ve tried them personally, how can you say whether you like them or not? I don’t say I wake up every morning thinking of eating a cricket kebab, but if a new idea occurs to me, or someone offers me a taste, I’m happy to try.
 
What do they taste like?
People always try to compare one taste with another. Some people say that a locust tastes like scampi, or pork crackling. I say “No, it tastes of locust.” We’re always looking for useless similarities, for rules that confirm normality and help us to avoid anything out of the ordinary. We should try to open our minds wider instead. Having said that, since locusts have a hard carapace, when cooked they may remind us of eating prawns, but it’s not really true to say they taste like prawns.
 
 
When did you first eat insects?
I was in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. A boy came up to me in the street with some cricket kebabs, as though challenging me. Instead of backing away in horror, I took one and tried it. I still remember the curiosity and surprise on the faces of people in the street, as they stopped to watch in astonishment at this “European” eating insects.
 
Are they difficult to cook?
Not really. Usually, the “jumpers” – such as crickets, grasshoppers and locusts – are caramelized and become sweet and crunchy, while spiders are better fried. I prefer to cook them in butter, because you get a better taste… your cheeks blush with pleasure. In countries where their consumption is normal, insects are rarely mixed with other foods, they’re considered a delicacy to be eaten on their own. For these people, insects are an especially delicious street food, and a cricket kebab for them is like candy floss for us. If in Italy a little boy pulls his father’s jacket tails because he wants some sweets, in Thailand he shouts “Dad, can a have a cricket?”
 
What's your favorite insect?
The locust. It has that biblical connotation… it was one of the plagues of Egypt! How often do you get to use such a distinguished ingredient? Besides, they’re really delicious with pork or beef.
 
Do you have a tip for anyone wanting to try a locust?
Better go for a big one. A small locust is all carapace and takes a long time to chew. A big one has lots more soft pulp inside, so it’s more pleasant to eat.
 
Can you describe one of your dishes with insects in it?
I do a dish with pork belly cooked at a low temperature, aromatized with a little ginger and lemongrass, some gravy and with caramelized locust lightly fried with teriyaki sauce. Plus a side dish of fresh herb salad with shiso, dressed with a vinaigrette with ginger and balsamic vinegar. A dish that plays with sour and bitter tones and characterized by the crunchiness of the pork belly skin and the locust.
 
On your travels, what was your most striking culinary experience?
I ate a snake in Northern India, skinned and cooked on losa stone… very similar to slate. It was delicious, with a texture very much like chicken, and with the same consistency.
 
Tell us about an ingredient unknown in Europe which is made from an insect, a worm or a larva…
Sal de gusano, extracted from the Mezcal worm, Mescal being a Mexican spirit distilled from agave plants. The worm is dried and grated to obtain a pink salt with a spicy taste. It’s a Mexican specialty, used to flavor meat. There it’s a poor ingredient, here in Europe it could become new gourmet rarity.
 
What reactions do people have when they eat one of your dishes with insects?
Mostly curiosity: we grow up with mental barriers, and they take some knocking down. Some people say “But locusts look so ugly, so disgusting!” But if you think about it, what’s so different from a prawn? Basically it’s a question of habit: when we were children we got used to thinking that prawns were delicious, not locusts. Once, in Colombia, I ate a bread bun with a hamburger in the middle, and it was so good, tender, juicy and tasty that I asked for another. Only afterwards did they tell me it was a worm hamburger. So my invitation to people is “forget about your prejudices and just try it”. It’s a shame to miss out on new culinary experiences because of a fake perception created by our accumulated cultural schemes.
 

Insect dishes: entomophagy

Lifestyle / -

Insects are the most abundant animals on the planet and their meats are rich in protein, vitamins and low in fat. Their taste also seems to be pleasant. Why then do they not feature more often in our dishes?
 
With rare exceptions, all life is driven by a single power: solar power. Thanks to photosynthesis, it is captured by plants and, transferred to all animals along the food chain, assuming the thousand forms of different living beings.
 
Every year, solar energy produces a biomass - organic matter that we in the animal kingdom need to feed ourselves - equal to 104.9 * 1015 g, and thus every individual is in possession of an impressive and extremely diverse quantity of food. Yet most animals live in a state verging on starvation, and most importantly their diet is pretty dull. Carnivores eat almost exclusively meat and vegetarians love vegetables. And that’s not all: vegetarians often do not consume all plants, but rather just a few preferred ones. An example is the geranium butterfly that loves just this plant, shunning all others. If there is no geranium, the butterfly simply lets itself die. Omnivorous animals on the other hand are characterized by a varied diet and are quite rare and include rats, cockroaches, crows, pigs and a few others.

Our species is the undisputed champion of this type of food, with the ability to digest a large variety of food. Despite this almost unique ability, man is picky and does not eat certain potentially edible foods. I'm talking about insects that although abundant (more than 70% of the animal kingdom is an insect), rich in protein and low in fat are chosen by Man only sporadically, at least in the West.

Oriental and African dishes are renowned for insects that are often main ingredients. The Orientals love cicadas (especially females) coated with a batter and then fried in hot oil. While in Africa, you can eat a lot of bamboo moth larvae, preferably cooked on the grill. Africans love these larvae so much that they keep a box with them for making easy purchases at supermarkets. Even the ancient Romans loved insect cuisine and their dishes would consist of large wood-boring larvae (which fed on wood) cooked on hot stones and then topped with honey.
 
According to some experts, insects represent an excellent diet both from a dietetic and an organoleptic point of view. It appears that insects are very tasty. But why then are these little creatures not served on our plates? Certainly the fact that they are so difficult to breed did not help a widespread adoption: looking after a cow is definitely less expensive and more productive than the paltry amount obtainable from the farming of small six-legged animals. And to my mind, this is not an insignificant limiting factor, restricting insects from becoming a greater part of our diets. In the long run, given their undisputed nutritional benefits, these invertebrates may become a valuable compendium for our food intake.
 
Currently there is also another problem related to the edibility of insects: and it’s a legal one. As we know, the meat that we eat must be checked by a veterinarian; and veterinary experts specializing in the flesh of insects are quite rare, so finding legal insect meat is quite difficult.
 
 

Insects: some get spooked by them and others eat them

Lifestyle / -

Gli insetti: a qualcuno fanno senso e qualcuno se li  mangia

Man has been able to subjugate nature so that, in the places where he lived, it must comply with certain rules. Insects, an ancient life form, are able with impunity, to conquer space in our territory. Perhaps this is also the origin of our repulsion towards them.

Swathes of insects have forever broken through our concrete barriers and are resistant to our pesticides, regularly invading man's environment. Yet it is really only a small portion of them that break through and enter our environments: these are the synanthropic insects.

Let’s look close up look at these creatures, starting from the axiom of ecology that states "where there is an environment there is an animal." This means that the bugs that live with us have plenty of food and protection in our environments. Mosquitoes, for example, require water in the larval stage while the adults feed on blood. Well, in urban environments, the larvae are in their element in the stands, in fountains, drains and bins of gardeners etc.., while adults are simply spoiled for choice, with a considerable number of walking blood reserves to choose from.

Take another example: cockroaches. These animals lived in prehistoric forests and fed on plant debris. After the invention of agriculture, when our species created urban communities, cockroaches moved to the city, attracted by the mass of accumulated organic waste.

The western world is characterized by an extreme humanization of the environment and has the worst relationship with insects. So our culture, capable of building the most artificial of ecosystems that there are, such as huge cities and engineered countrysides, has the worst relationship with insects. Just think of the Bible, the book par excellence of the Western world that mention insects  in multiple citation which never come off well: the grasshopper, for example, is the most often cited insect and is always considered destructive.
 
For some African peoples, on the contrary, this animal is also a source of food and is regularly served up on a plate as a prime delicacy.

Insect communities are also harmful: those which are attracted to crops in our countryside, eat about ten percent of our entire agricultural production.

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