If eating is an art form, then insects-as-food remains an experimental genre—at least in the West. But bugs, which are high in protein and low in terms of environmental impact, are a far more sustainable food source than beef or pork. And thanks to four graduate students in London, an evolving concept called Ento, could pave the way for more sustainable food systems.
What began as a graduate project has matured over the past two years, with a series of caterings and pop-up restaurants introducing insect-based dishes to new audiences around the U.K. Just before Easter, the founders of Ento (which is a portmanteau of bento box and entomology) served buffalo caterpillars at the Edinburgh Science Festival, the largest event they’ve participated in so far. They want Ento to grow organically—with more supper clubs this year and a restaurant in about 18 months. Slow growth allows them to see firsthand how the food is received, to understand their customers, and to build up good will en route to hitting supermarket shelves in a few years. Before mass consumption of insects can become a first-world reality, you need to fix the perception problem. With a nod to the aesthetics of sushi presentation, that’s precisely what Ento does.
"Sushi was a very inspiring story for us," says cofounder Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky, who met her cofounders at the Innovation Design Engineering MA/MSc double masters course at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London. Aguirre-Bielschowski, who is German but is originally from Mexico, says she and her colleagues were initially met with skepticism from advisors, but she says they found inspiration in a 30-year-old Japanese travel book that advised tourists to beware of "strange Japanese restaurants that serve raw fish."
If sushi could make fans out of skeptics in just three decades, then why not bugs?
"The idea of giving it an Asian subtext goes a bit deeper than that as well," says Aguirre-Bielschowsky. "It’s creating the right associations for insects. We see Asian foods as clean, but still exotic. It’s really important that food is not just ingredients but an entire culture that makes a dish a dish." So the team—aeronautical engineer and design strategist Jacky Chung; designer and engineer Jon Fraser; designer, engineer, and artist Aran Dasan—got to work. With the help of chef and food stylist Xania Von Oswald, they’ve been able to bridge the gap between merely edible and truly elegant. And they’ve discovered some enticing flavors along the way.
"If you roast wax worms, which are these little caterpillars that eat only honey," says Aguirre-Bielschowsky, "they taste pretty much like pistachios. Locusts, they’re very nutty, kind of like walnuts. Crickets are different, actually very meaty. So if you pan fry them, they taste a bit like sausages. And obviously I think the first time you try them, you associate them with a lot of things that are already familiar to you. But as you eat them more and more you start recognizing their own flavors."
While their initial Ento Box product is designed to make the bugs unrecognizable, they view that as an entry point rather than an end game. Once consumers get past that perception problem, they can move onto other more natural bugs—for instance, topping a salad with baked crickets, rather than prosciutto or bacon. All the bugs they serve are organic and relatively local to London, and as you can see from the below video, they could represent a wide-scale solution for urban food systems.
All photos courtesy of Ento.