Although insects are not as big a part of Taiwanese food traditions as they are in some other parts of the world, a handful of companies and individuals are trying to bring this fledgling food trend into the mainstream.
Crispy fried bee larvae appear on a few menus in the Taiwanese countryside, as do crickets. The larvae and pupae of the Asian giant hornet are served at certain indigenous-cuisine restaurants. Yet in contrast to several African and Latin American countries, edible insects have never been more than fringe foods in Taiwan.
Chen Bing-chen, Matan Shelomi, and Timothy Seekings are among a small yet dedicated group of people trying to change that. They point to developments in places where people do not traditionally consume insects – such as the EU’s decisions in May 2021 and November 2021 to approve dried yellow mealworms and locusts, respectively, as human foods – as proof that the eating of insects is about to become much more mainstream.
Chen is the co-founder and CEO of FoodType, a Taichung-based company that, according to its website, “explores the future possibilities of food.” Soon after FoodType was established in 2018, it began selling packets of edible dried crickets, baked mealworms with peanuts, chocolate-flavored mealworms, and other insect-derived foods.
Among those who enjoy FoodType’s unusual offerings, Chen says, are children and bodybuilders. The latter market segment’s interest in eating insects makes sense from a nutritional perspective: A 2019 study by Chinese scientists asserts that edible insects “usually contain more crude protein compared with the conventional meat [and] their amino acid compositions are usually analogous.”
All went well until 2020 when Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration (TFDA) ruled that FoodType’s edible-insect products contravened regulations. In addition to paying a fine of NT$80,000, the company also had to destroy unsold products. The total loss was in the region of NT$1 million, Chen says.
The insects/insect-derivatives section of the TFDA’s Reference List of Food Ingredients has 11 entries, among them bee pupae, beeswax, honey, propolis, royal jelly, and silkworm pupae.
Neither crickets nor mealworms are on the list of approved ingredients, but it seems that rural eateries and farmers’ markets are given more leeway than companies that sell food in sealed packages. The logic behind this difference in treatment is that someone dining in a restaurant – or buying loose produce at a market – can inspect what they are getting before they commit themselves.
FoodType is currently promoting its SUP365 brand of nutritional supplements. These products contain bee larvae, and even though every ingredient is TFDA-approved, each product was required to undergo testing before it could be sold, Chen explains.
These inspections, which include tests for heavy metals and pesticide residues, cost around NT$20,000 per product. If a company wants to bring to market a product that includes non-approved ingredients, the TFDA insists on a far more comprehensive food-safety assessment, and the cost – which is borne by the manufacturer – can be as high as NT$2 million, says Chen.
Since late 2020, Chen has been pushing for the establishment of the Taiwan Edible Insect Industry Association (臺灣食用昆蟲產業協會, TEIIA). The organization would aim to promote edible-insect R&D and farming, while also negotiating with the authorities on issues such as subsidies and expanding the list of insects approved for human consumption.
If a local cohort of edible-insect entrepreneurs and researchers emerges in the next few years, Matan Shelomi will likely deserve some of the credit. New York City-born Shelomi, an associate professor in the Department of Entomology at National Taiwan University (NTU), has been teaching a semester-long course on edible insects since 2018.
Shelomi says he knew the course would be popular, but the numbers signing up have exceeded his expectations. “This year, because it’s online-only, I didn’t cap the numbers, and we have over 550 students,” he says.
The course begins with a look at why people eat what they do before covering traditional and modern edible insects. Shelomi notes that his discussions with students touch on topics as wide-ranging as nutrition and safety, economics, environmental impact, packaging and marketing, and insects used as medicine. “It ends up being as much a food science course as an entomology course,” he says.
Shelomi notes that bioconversion techniques, which use organisms like larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) to turn organic waste into human food (or animal feed), are in the process of being perfected.
The black soldier fly is “predicted to be the next big domesticated arthropod, after the honey bee and the silkworm,” he says. “However, we need to be absolutely certain of its safety. How do we convert potentially biohazardous food waste into unquestionably safe food or feed? The more safety issues we rule out with investigations or procedures like pasteurization, the more widely insect bioconversion can be used.”
Shelomi has ordered cricket and silkworm snacks from Thailand to share with his students. He also tells them about restaurants where they can order edible-insect dishes, one being Mother’s Kitchen (also known as Nuniang, 女娘的店). This Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant in Tianmu, known for its highly traditional fare, serves bee larvae and crickets when they are in season.
Asked about traditional insect-eating in Taiwan, Shelomi mentions Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia, 大虎頭蜂) and Formosan giant crickets (Tarbinskiellus portentosus, 臺灣大蟋蟀). The hornet nests are steamed to kill the insects inside; the broods are then fried. According to Shelomi, they taste like French fries.
“The crickets are collected by flooding their subterranean tunnels and catching them as they emerge,” he says. “They’re huge – at least 35mm long – so they’re typically gutted, stuffed with a veggie, and cooked with garlic. And they have their own flavor, which deserves to be called as such.”
Raw larvae were consumed in Qing-era Taiwan. According to William A. Pickering, a Briton who worked for the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs in Tainan, when visiting an indigenous settlement in central Taiwan in 1866 he was offered a honeycomb “in which the larvae predominated. As the others seemed to think this rather an advantage, I felt myself compelled to follow their example [and take a bite].”
Shelomi does not subscribe to dystopian predictions that food shortages will force humans to subsist on insects. “I see insects becoming important in places where vertebrate meat is already unavailable, and insects could be a much-needed source of protein,” he says. “Also, they could be a way to convert food waste into food.”
He describes the latter use as “a great argument for ‘entoveganism,’” a movement that aims to improve plant-based diets through the addition of insects. Its proponents say it is healthier for humans – and has an even lower carbon footprint – than conventional veganism.
As for feeding the poor, insect meat is currently more expensive than animal meat. Shelomi points out that in countries where insects are part of the traditional diet, urban demand for insects often exceeds rural supply.
“This leads to unsustainable harvests as people over-collect insects to sell to city residents, while themselves rejecting insects in favor of cheap, unhealthy food,” he says, adding that the solution to this issue is the introduction of insect farming.
“Much of the current research on edible insects is – or at least should be – focused on finding better ways to produce more insects more cheaply,” Shelomi says. If costs are brought down, he explains, farmed insects will become more accessible to the world’s poor, and this will take the pressure off wild insect populations.
The lack of a legal framework is a significant obstacle in many countries, Shelomi says. “Building an insect farm is a major undertaking, and investors won’t do it without assurance that their enterprise is legal. Ambiguity is bad for business.”
And while the regulatory environment may not be ideal, at least Taiwan’s climate is conducive to raising insects. “Farming often involves climate control, but Taiwan’s natural heat and humidity, especially down south, is a good fit for insect farming,” Shelomi says.
Timothy Seekings is among those who have raised edible insects without significant difficulties. A Ph.D. candidate in natural resources and environmental science at National Dong Hwa University’s College of Environmental Studies, he has been farming two-spotted crickets (Gryllus bimaculatus) in his lab at the university and at his home in Hualien since late 2015.
Seekings started with 10 crickets bought from a pet shop. Now at any one time, the Anglo-German cares for between 6,000 and 8,000 crickets. He has yet to experience summertime temperatures so high the insects needed artificial cooling. Good ventilation is key, he says.
During winter, Seekings sometimes turns on a radiator to ensure the mercury stays above 20 degrees Celsius. “If it goes lower, the crickets don’t thrive,” he says. “Their reproduction rate declines, and mortality is likely to increase. If you want consistent production, you need some temperature control in wintertime.”
The crickets can be harvested when they reach maturity, six to eight weeks after they hatch. Seekings often freezes adult crickets until he needs them.
Local interest in entomophagy – the technical name for insect-eating – is growing, says Seekings. From time to time, he receives requests for insects from students of food science or product design. In return, he asks those who use his crickets to let him know how they used them. “One person in Keelung told me he wanted to make cricket floss, like pork floss,” he says. “A person in Hualien made cinnamon buns with crickets!”
Depending on the request, Seekings sends crickets whole and frozen or dehydrated, or turned into a powder.
To avoid legal complications, Seekings always tells those he gives crickets to that, while the insects are food-grade, they are research materials for people to experiment with in their kitchens. He has also created a consent form with details of how he raises the crickets and a warning that some people may be allergic.
Seekings says the current rules are “a barrier, yet understandable from a food-safety perspective. They’re also a motivation to do the research and get the data.”
As part of his doctoral research, Seekings has introduced various cricket-based foods to the public through C. Canteen (蟋餐廳), a pop-up eatery in Hualien, and through a cafe he ran (and hopes to revive) in association with a friend’s rice dealership.
For the 2019 Fuli Harvest Festival, Seekings and a friend made scones with a four-parts wheat-flour, one-part cricket-flour mix to test a hypothesis. Some researchers contend that people are more accepting of edible insects if they are offered in the form of familiar foods (so-called “gateway foods”), rather than presented as whole insects. However, Seekings says, “Our experience didn’t corroborate this idea. People were much more interested in and accepting of the whole crickets.”
Using a greater proportion of cricket flour would affect baking performance and texture, because the gluten level in the mix would be lower, Seekings explains.
At home, he eats cricket dishes at least once a week. “They can be battered and deep-fried. Wok-frying them with onion, garlic, and chili also works really well,” he says. When cooking for friends, he reckons on 20 to 30 crickets per adult.
Like snails, crickets have to be purged before eating. This is done by starving them for 24 hours. Seekings usually also removes the hindgut just before cooking, to improve the taste.
He especially likes to make tsukudani, a traditional Japanese method for preserving seafood and seaweed (and, in a few places, locusts or insect larvae). He does this by cooking the crickets in water containing syrup and a few other ingredients. The resulting concoction can be sprinkled on plain rice and eaten in the same way many Taiwanese enjoy pork floss.
From time to time, Seekings turns crickets into pet food that he feeds to his 10 cats and one dog. “The results have been mixed,” he says. “My dog likes cricket snacks. Some of the cats are more interested than others.”
Dog and cat foods made from black soldier fly larvae by the British company Yora are sold in Taiwan. These products, which are 36-62% insect matter, are around three times the price of conventional meat-based pet foods, but claim a much lower carbon footprint.
In a 2020 paper in Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, Seekings and his doctoral supervisor, K.C. Wong, argue that “advancing the edible insects sector in Taiwan would serve the national goal of increasing food self-sufficiency and could have positive effects for rural economies and livelihoods.”
Taiwan imports huge quantities of animal feed, yet struggles to dispose of food waste. Using black soldier fly larvae to consume food waste, then converting the larvae into livestock feed, Seekings points out, would be in line with the development of a circular economy promoted by the Taiwan government.