Silkworm on sale in Gorchuk weekly market in Guwahati. Photo: Bijo Boro.
Guwahati: Eating insects, or entomophagy, is nothing new. The traditional diets of many communities in India’s northeast include insects for their nutritional, economic and ecological benefits.
Assam’s indigenous communities have for many generations customarily consumed red ant larvae during Bohag Bihu, the region’s principal spring festival. This year, while festivities in April were dampened by a strict lockdown, people still collected ant larvae.
“We could not perform many rituals this bihu,” Bitu Gogoi, a resident of Da-gaon, near Kaziranga National Park, said. “There had been limited preparations, with pork basically out of the menu. But a whole nest of Amroli poruar tup made my bihu.”
‘Amroli poruar tup’ is red ant larvae: they resemble puffy rice and have a sour taste, and are available in the spring. The people sometimes eat them raw, with salt and chilli.
Jatin Kuli, who hails from Dhemaji on the Brahmaputra’s north bank (across from Dibrugarh), said people collect insects as delicacies in particular seasons but hadn’t been able to do so after the lockdowns kicked in. “Insects remain a safer option for rural communities. Collecting various aquatic insects soared during the lockdown period,” Kuli said.
One insect that should have been available in large numbers is the jebangkori, a.k.a. giant water bug (Lethocercus indicus). “But they are not as common as they used to be. Indiscriminate hunting has limited the insect’s natural range,” according to Kuli.
Other commonly eaten insects include crickets, beetles, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, locusts, termites and dragonflies. Silk worms are also popular: the larvae and pupae of varieties like eri polu (Philosomia ricini) and muga polu (Antheraea assama) are considered to be healthy and are eaten fried, roasted or raw.
The silkworm’s late instar larvae and pupae are also eaten raw with salt and chilli or roasted with herbs as a snack.
“The traditional use of insects as food is widespread as they provide significant nutritional and economical benefits to rural communities in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram,” Padmeshwar Gogoi, a retired professor of botany who has studied edible insects and the dietary preferences of different ethnic groups in the region, said. “Edible insects contain high-quality protein, vitamins, carbohydrates and amino acids for humans.”
Assam has a rich tradition of growing muga, or ‘golden silk’, from the muga silkworm. But Bal Bahadur Chetri, a muga farmer from Kamrup district, said that in the last few months he had sold off more of muga‘s instar larvae and pupae for consumption than the cocoons, themselves prized for their silk.
“You will find a number of silkworm recipes on the menus of local hotels,” Jitul Saikia, the director of Wild Silk Society, an NGO in Dhakuakhana, a town known for its silk production. Saikia, a muga farmer himself, said the increasing demand for edible insects has made sure they sell like hot cakes in local markets – among members of tribal communities as well as others.
Tourism helped: “I tasted roasted silkworms for the first time in a tourism festival in Upper Assam,” Mohammad Sajjad, a teacher, said. “Believe me, the taste is so good, anyone would love it! More importantly it’s a healthy diet.”
Saikia recalled a survey in the Dhemaji district a decade ago, which found that edible silkworm had then been sold for Rs 80-100 per kg; the same quantity is sold for Rs 450-500 today. Buyers are often willing to pay more when demand outstrips supply.
Such interest isn’t confined to tribal communities in India’s corners – although wider acceptance in a country that already struggles to be comfortable with beef and pork is bound to be many years away. To quote the words of the Dutch tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis, from an interview to The Wire in 2017:
The single most important reason for [eating insects] is that they will cause much less damage to the environment as compared to the meat industry as it is today. They emit much less greenhouse gases and ammonia. They need only a fraction of land and water that common production animals need and insects can be reared on organic side streams. One third of our agricultural produce and food is wasted currently and just that waste could be used to sustain insect farming. They can also be used as food for both humans as well as animal feed for pets and livestock.
According to one estimate, the edible insects market could be worth $1.18 billion by 2023. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated in 2013 that at least two billion people around the world eat more than 1,900 species of insects as food.
The species in most demand until 2017 has been crickets (Gryllidae family) – which entomologists have attributed to the ease with which they can be incorporated into different recipes.
Note: This article was edited at 5:55 pm on July 18, 2020, to more accurately reflect the place and prevalence of entomophagy in Northeast India.
Mubina Akhtar is a journalist and activist based in Guwahati.