Time For A 'Bug Mac'? The Dutch Aim To Make Insects More Palatable

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Diners who merely flit over the menu at the Specktakel restaurant in the Netherlands are sometimes shocked when their plate arrives.

"They just read the first two things in the sentence, and then they think they've got the bobotie pie with pumpkin mash, raisins and watercress," says owner Mark Cashoek. "And the last word is actually the insect crumble."

Insect crumble? Who would want to see crumbled insects on their plate next to the antelope quiche?

Evidently, the hundreds of people who swarmed to Cashoek's Specktakel restaurant in Haarlem, Netherlands, last month to partake in two special bug buffets, both of which sold out.

Specktakel's head chef, Michiel den Hartogh, is in the kitchen assembling a "crispy cricket" concoction — complete with curried mayonnaise, crocodile pie and fried crickets — with the special care due any delicacy.

Den Hartogh is not above sampling as he cooks.

"Just eat it," he says. "Not so crazy."

The dishes receive rave reviews throughout the packed restaurant. Biologist Twan Leiyzer is enthusiastic about every course, capped by the dessert — warm cake with candied worm topping.

Leiyzer says he can feel the bugs: "It tastes very good."

Cashoek says he doesn't want Specktakel to be known as just the "bug restaurant," but he does keep one insect item on the menu at all times. And he admits that the special all-insect evening gets him lots of buzz — and customers, too.

"It is the fear factor and it is the gimmick that they'd try something like that," he says — not to mention pay more than $70 per plate for the privilege.

An hour east of Haarlem at Wageningen University, scientists are taking exactly the opposite approach — trying to make eating insects less exotic, more normal and cheaper as a food source. In fact, the European Union is investing more than $4 million to research the use of insects as a protein source for humans.

Ph.D. student Dennis Oonincx is checking out his mealworms living in the cricket lab, and says his research into how the worms metabolize a waste product shows how superior insects are as a protein source — better than cattle or sheep.

"You can produce more food for people with less input," he says. "It's good food and it's better for the environment."

Arnold van Huis, head of Wageningen's entomology department, is one of the world's premier experts in entomophagy, or eating insects. He believes the rising price of meat will help change diets.

"If your Big Mac is going to cost about $100 and your Bug Mac is going to cost only $4, people will change to a Bug Mac," van Huis says.

Van Huis says the challenge is to make it delicious. That's where Marian Peters comes in. For years, as secretary of the Dutch insect breeders association Venik, she's been active in bringing edible insects to consumers' tables. And Peters says the first commercially available bug sandwich will be out soon — a wrap filled with insects and peas.

"People liked it," Peters says. "Ninety percent want to have it on their daily menu at restaurants, so now we're upscaling production and bringing them to the market." (There's also a movement afoot in San Francisco, as we reported last year.)

But back at Specktakel restaurant, Gerard van Dyck isn't quite satisfied with his dinner. He's complaining about the lack of worms.

"You don't see the worms in it," he says. "There's just a little bit of worm."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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