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In Copenhagen, daring to innovate on the plate

In Copenhagen, daring to innovate on the plate

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At the internationally-renowned restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, finding an insect in your food is a reason to dig in, not send it back.

In a wooded area north of Copenhagen, dozens of angry ants were scuttling furiously around the top of an anthill when a young Irish chef named Trevor Moran said, "Put your hand down so they can climb up and bite you." It seemed futile to argue; I lowered my hand and let the tiny ants rush to the attack, climbing onto my skin and pricking me with their minuscule pincers. After watching in horror for a moment I brushed off all but one. Following Moran's advice to "Eat it quickly or it will bite your tongue," I crushed it between my teeth and tasted an oily burst of lemony flavor.

A couple of times a week from spring through fall, Moran and a Danish colleague, Thomas Paulsen, forage for ants for Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant where they work (often named the world's top table by food critics and Restaurant magazine's World's 50 Best list). At first they had no idea what they were doing, but now it is routine. They skim the top off a hill, attract the bugs onto rolled up pieces of waxed paper and pour them into a plastic container -- all the while trying to ignore those that climb inside their pants and bite their legs. During our drive back to the city a stray one wandered out of Moran's shirt and onto the car seat; Paulsen ate it.

Over the past year or so, Noma's chef and co-owner, René Redzepi, has become a leading proponent of insects as food. In 2008 he co-founded the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit foundation for culinary research. Now one of the lab's principal activities is exploring the gastronomic qualities of insects. The staff have applied for a three-year grant to take their research even further, studying issues from psychology to pathology.

Nobody knows exactly how many people around the planet think of bugs as lunch. Some estimates say that 70 percent of the world's cultures have a tradition of eating insects, from Cambodia to Nigeria to Mexico -- practically everywhere outside the modern West. One reason for this cultural disparity is that insects are larger, more available and easier to harvest in tropical zones. But as the global population explodes, edible insects could become big business worldwide.

What interests Redzepi is their potential as a new source of deliciousness, especially since he restricts his cuisine to indigenous products in a place where variety is hard to come by. Two years ago, when he launched an annual culinary symposium called Mad (Danish for "food"), the Brazilian chef Alex Atala showed up with Amazonian ants to try. Redzepi said the taste was explosive, like lemongrass and kaffir lime. "I could not believe there was so much flavor in such a little creature," he recalled. "I was thinking, why aren't we exploring this? We have bugs here -- maybe some are actually delicious."

One day, while foraging for herbs, Moran met a Danish schoolteacher who had been serving local ants to his students, dipped in chocolate. These too, tasted of lemongrass. (The sour flavor comes from formic acid, their defense mechanism.) "That was a revolution for us," Redzepi said. "Lemongrass, this exotic flavor, here in the cold North? I was blown away. Then we played around, trying to test: when do we get past the point of seeing it as a bug rather than an ingredient? It took no more than a week."

In the spring of 2012 he added Danish ants to his tasting menu, served live, struggling to escape from a small pile of crème fraîche. Mind you, this is a restaurant where a table of two can easily part with $1,000 and the waiting list often runs to more than a thousand names. Nonetheless, very few clients rejected the bugs. In fact, many showed up asking for them.

But Redzepi has been disappointed by the reaction of others, notably chefs from New York to Paris who accuse him of gimmickry. He believes they suffer from closed minds and Western self-righteousness. Personally, he says, he is fed up with eating the same animals day after day. "Everywhere I travel it's the same. Now you're going to taste my pork. Now it's my pork. Here's my beef, you'll taste my beef. Then chicken. I don't want to feel closed in, or just accept that this is the way it is. Once in a while we find new flavors that help push our restaurant forward. Right now, these three ants we've found are making our food better." And ants are only the beginning -- the earth hosts at least 1,900 species of edible bugs just waiting for a creative hand in the kitchen.

Every morning before work, Redzepi stops in at the Nordic Food Lab, a roomy houseboat docked in the harbor steps from Noma. He conceived the foundation, sits on its board, and shares some of his kitchen staff, but makes clear the lab is a completely independent entity from the restaurant. Its purpose is to expand upon food knowledge with long-term research projects, and disseminate its findings at conferences and via its website (www.nordicfoodlab.org).

The day before my ant-foraging expedition, I visited the boat and met the staff. The director, Michael Bom Frøst, teaches sensory science at the University of Copenhagen. Benedict Reade, head of culinary R&D, is a Scottish chef with a background in gastronomic science. And Joshua Evans, an intern, is a recent Yale graduate who has studied sustainable agriculture. As we started to talk, they pulled out a container of dehydrated and salted bee larvae, and explained to me that the primary focus of the insect project is what they call the "hedonic factor." It doesn't matter how nutritious insects might be or how impressive their food conversion rate -- if they don't taste good, nobody will want to eat them.

I took a few of the small brown chips and popped them into my mouth. They were crunchy and salty with a slightly sweet honey taste, and I could easily imagine going through a bowl or two at happy hour. Larvae is a byproduct of beekeeping, some typically removed and discarded so there is excess honey to harvest later on. The Food Lab receives the bugs in different stages of development: older pupae with the beginnings of a differentiated thorax and abdomen, and creamy larvae blobs, sweet and mild with flavors reminiscent of egg and warm honeydew. The lab have used them to make mayonnaise and a particularly tasty high-protein granola.

Reade explained that bee larvae were an excellent "gateway" insect for breaking down the mental barriers people have to ingesting bugs. He said the first time you eat an insect is generally the hardest, but a positive experience can quickly change attitudes: "If you put something that looks like a maggot in front of a group of people to eat, they're kind of revolted. But if you say 'all this animal has ever eaten is honey,' it can be a real game changer."

One of the experts with whom the Food Lab collaborates is Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in food choices and disgust. Rozin calls learning to like things that originally turn us off (such as cigarettes) "hedonic reversals," though it's not known why or how they take place. "Most likely it is primarily social: we note that those we admire like these things, and that gets us to somehow reinterpret the negative sensations/perceptions/conceptions that we have," he explained. "What is clear is that if we can induce someone to eat something disgusting a number of times, in a positive social context, there is a good chance they will come to like it."

The staff at the Nordic Food Lab say there are many reasons for convincing Westerners to add insects to their diet. But bugs should not be considered the sole solution to the problem of feeding a growing planet. As Bom Frøst pointed out, "Sustainability is diversity." Cows and chickens still have an important role to play in a healthy biosystem.

Even so, conventional livestock uses 70 percent of the world's agricultural land. Insects emit less greenhouse gases, can often be grown on organic waste, frequently prefer to be packed together, and reach maturity in a matter of weeks. They are nutritious; grasshoppers, for example, provide the same protein content as beef with less fat. They have a high food conversion rate -- according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, crickets need six times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein. With these facts in mind, the European Union is investing some 4 million euros in a feasibility study of insects as protein in animal feed.

An important aspect of any such study is pathology: knowing which insects are safe to eat and which might make us sick. At the Food Lab, the staff use cultural practices as a starting point. If a certain insect is part of a human diet somewhere in the world, it is more likely to be pathogen-free. They read any books and papers they can find on the subject, and consult a professor of entomological parasitology.

Once they are convinced that a bug is safe, they search for the best ways to uncover its deliciousness, using some fairly complex processes. (This is where it helps to be a chef.) The first time the grasshoppers arrived, Reade immediately thought of turning them into a garum, using a fermentation technique going back to Roman times. When I visited, they had already made a garum with grasshoppers and wax moth larvae, with excellent results. On this day they decided to try it with bee larvae.

Reade pulled out a chunk of koji barley inoculated with fuzzy green Aspergillus oryzae, the same fungus used in sake and soy sauce. The fungus produces enzymes that break down the starches and make the barley sweet, and hydrolizes the proteins into simple amino acids with a rich umami flavor. Reade used a Thermomix to blend the koji with bee larvae and salt water (the salt keeps the pathogenic microorganisms at bay as well as enabling the enzymes, some beneficial bacteria and various strains of yeast to flourish). After a few minutes he had a thick greenish concoction that resembled pea soup.

Then he took a bag of raw, pureed grasshoppers and added it to the blend. One main obstacle to eating insects is the exoskeleton, but the food processor quickly solves the problem. Reade whizzed the mixture together until it turned the color of chocolate mousse with little brown specks. It smelled sweet like the koji with an earthy, toasted note from the grasshoppers. "Crickets don't taste like much to start," he said. "They're not flavor-rich like ants. But they are protein-rich, so the flavor comes from fermenting."

The mix would sit for six weeks at 42 degrees celsius, during which time it would darken, intensify in flavor, and separate into a paste, or "miso," and a liquid the Food Lab would use to flavor their staff meals. "We can't hope to make other people incorporate these foods into their diet if we don't," Evans said.

Not every experiment is a success. Reade recalls trying to make "bagoong," a fermented prawn condiment, with langoustine heads. "I tried to use the math, to work out the dry weight and the wet weight, how much salt was needed." He knew he had gotten something wrong when he opened the box in which it was fermenting and the stench was so bad he gagged. Fortunately, such failures are rare.

The fermented cricket paste was the first of the Food Lab's insect-based creations to make it onto the menu at Noma. After visiting the boat, I went to the test kitchen above the restaurant, where Redzepi served me a sorrel leaf folded around a bit of cricket miso, beet reduction and lacto-fermented red currants. The grasshopper smear had a pungent umami flavor that contrasted with the tart greenness of the leaf.

Redzepi was careful to point out that insects are only a small fraction of what Noma serves. He does not consider them a main dish but rather a new toolbox of flavors, like a spice or a condiment. They offer him one more way to connect with the land and explore the seasons. The Danish wood ants, for example, are milder in spring and sweeter in summer. "Sometimes when they have just eaten," he noted, "they're sort of bloated."

The ants have become an ingredient in two new dishes at Noma, ground into paste with a bit of thyme oil as a binder (and less recognizable than when served alive). One dish I tasted consisted of a fresh milk curd covered with wild blueberries mixed with ant paste. The insects added a bright citrus note, followed by an aftertaste of something wild and alien -- an almost aggressive flavor I could only describe as "antiness."

At times people ask Redzepi why he doesn't just use a lemon. The question drives him mad. "It's so unbelievably prosaic," he said. "You may as well live in a corner, because what is really necessary then? Is it necessary that we have watches? Is it necessary that we sometimes sit on a pillow? What is necessary if you want to always stick to the bare essentials? We're explorers, you know? We're exploring."

Photo: Nordic Food Lab

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Amy Serafin

Contributing Writer

Amy Serafin has written for The New York Times, Associated Press, Wallpaper, National Public Radio and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Formerly, she was editor-in-chief of Where Paris magazine. She is based in Paris, France. Disclosure