Vic Cherikoff Putting Insects on the Australian Menu

Vic Cherikoff is Australia’s foremost authority on insects as foods. He is one of the prime movers in changing our aversion to eating insects. His company, Bush Tucker Supplies in Sydney may be the first in the Australian food industry to introduce insect foods to the Australian market early this year. He won’t say what the product is, but says there is at least one other company vying to beat him onto the market.

His new insect food will be launched initially to the speciality catering industry but he also intends retailing it through specialty restaurants in several different states.

US food processors and scientists are now investigating the commercial feasibility of Australian honey ants, and Asian interests are believed to be exploring the commercialization of Australian insect foods.

Cherikoff considers that the insects with the best commercial potential could be witchetty grubs (Xyleutes leuchomochla), bardis (Bardistus cibarius) and similar grubs, honey ants (Melophorus bagoti) and sugarbag (Trigona bees).

However, Cherikoff feels much more research is needed before insects foods can be commercialised on a large scale. He cites the case of many of the native grubs which are liable to metamorphose into the next form in their life cycle if they are stressed when bred in captivity. What is already known is that insect foods are comparatively high in kilojoules, fat and protein. One study by Cherikoff and two university nutritionists concluded that they “have proximate compositions similar to those of equivalent domesticated foods”. For example, the Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) that plagued Sydney in the spring of ’88 contain over 20% protein; fat averages 50% of dry body weight; have an energy content of nearly 2000 kilojoules; and are particularly high in zinc. Bardi grubs are a very complete protein source. When fed to fish, 1.8 kilograms of bardis convert to 1 kilogram of fish.

Bill Mollison, another bush tucker man, is also a passionate supporter of insect foods. He believes that we are thoughtlessly foregoing a valuable natural resource because of our European aversion to insects. The locust plagues which periodically devastate wide areas of Australia contain some ten thousand tonnes of protein. The traditionally conservative NSW Department of Agriculture has suggested earthworms as a cheap and nutritious substitute for minced beef, pointing out that they have about the same protein content but that earthworms are much lower in fat.

Cherikoff is far from being merely a laboratory-based boffin. He has eaten tens of thousands of insects over a twenty year period and claims never to have suffered any ill effects. He conducts insect food tastings and dinners, tours and courses.

He has developed a network of suppliers all over the country who send him their local delicacies, like the farmer near Lismore in the far northeast of NSW who digs longicorn beetles, tasting like scrambled eggs, from rotting trees. Cherikoff claims an 80% acceptance rate for the bush foods proffered in his courses, rising to 90% for such delicacies as Bogong moths.

While understandably coy about his forthcoming insect marketing ventures, he is effusive about the potential of the domestic and export markets. Already the demand is huge. He quotes cases where he has had to decline orders of thousands of kilograms from Japan solely due to lack of supplies. Quarantine regulations, he says, pose no problem because the insects can easily be sterilised, vacuum-packed and freeze-dried. Market penetration has been slow but is steadily increasing as Asian influence in Australia grows.

In the restaurant trade the adventurous gourmet may already sample insect foods on the menus of a growing list of restaurants. The doyen and progenitor of them all is Rowntrees, The Australian Restaurant, at Hornsby on Sydney’s North Shore. Also in Sydney are Cafe Troppo in inner-city Glebe; the Garrison at The Rocks and the Sheraton Wentworth in the city. In other states there are the Tally Ho Lodge at Inglewood, out of Adelaide; the Metropolitan Brasserie at Bendigo, Victoria; Cloves at Kyneton, also in Victoria and a restaurant in Bundaberg, Queensland. But the list is not confined to Australian shores. Homesick Aussies with an irresistible craving for our native insects can also find satisfaction at the Excelsior Hotel in Hong Kong or the Caz Gallery in Los Angeles.

Could it be that the nation which once rode on the sheep’s back will one day ride on the backs of Bogong moths and witchetty grubs? While you’re chewing that one over, why not chuck another bardi on the barbie?

(Note: Thanks to Dr. Richard Gorham, Food and Drug Administration, Washington, D.C., for sending a copy of this article).