A Winnipeg university is taking sustainable eating to a new level by planning a campus menu with crickets and mealworms.
“For me, the flour is kind of the gateway in. It’s the safest way, because we’re dealing with a generally pretty squeamish clientele,” said Ben Kramer, the executive chef of Diversity Foods at the University of Winnipeg.
For the past few months, Kramer has been experimenting with recipes — coming up with ways to use cricket flour, whole crickets and mealworms in dishes students will actually buy and enjoy.
Diversity Foods has a mandate to be organic, sustainable and support local wherever possible — and when it comes to protein, it doesn’t get much more sustainable than crickets.
Crickets yield one pound of protein for every two pounds of feed, whereas cows yield one pound of usable protein for every 25 pounds of feed.
Not to mention it only takes six weeks to harvest crickets, whereas cows and pigs take about a year.
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"How much feed it takes, how much space it takes, how much time it takes — the health benefits of it. There is no down side of it other than people being squeamish," he said. “I’m trying to get people to have an open mind about it because as soon as I talk about it people are grossed out.”
Crickets taste like sunflower seeds
The ick-factor is the biggest hurdle Kramer faces.
Even his own staff are squeamish about eating the full, roasted bugs.
Alba Sawatsky works at Elements on campus and squirmed, shuddered and closed her eyes before trying them.
When she did, she was impressed.
"I think the crickets taste a little more earthy — maybe more like pumpkin seeds. It's weird to talk about eating bugs ... I thought there would be legs, and I would feel them but I didn't," she said. "It's pretty good. It would be a good snack, I think — really healthy. Bring it to the beach."
Kramer usually explains it like this: roasted crickets taste like sunflower seeds — so whatever you’d eat sunflower seeds on or in, crickets are an option.
"If you're going to eat a flatbread for instance, why not eat one that has seven grams of protein per ounce?" he said.
Mealworms are a bit tougher for people to stomach — they give a tiny “pop” like a pumpkin seed and taste a bit more like a mushroom. Kramer is looking at making high-protein dashi with them — a clear, Japanese broth.
Crickets, mealworms served on river
Earlier this year, Kramer served a full course of insects at RAW: Almond, the pop-up restaurant on the Red River.
The dinners sell out every year, attract world-renowned chefs and come with a hefty price tag — and serving up bugs ended up paying off.
“I made a naan bread using cricket flour because I figured that was pretty safe,” he said. “I served it with the chutney with the whole roasted crickets, and then I made a tzatziki sauce that had the shredded cucumber but also the mealworms because they mimicked the texture.”
Kramer is working on a protein bar with crickets to be launched in July at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and cricket and mealworm pizza will be on the menu from Tuesday until Thursday next week.
After that, he'll be spending more time crafting recipes.
Cricket breeding program on the horizon
For now, Kramer is working with Next Millennium Farms out of Ontario. They’re set up to breed crickets on a massive scale.
Eventually, though, the plan is to breed the crickets themselves at Fort Whyte — a wildlife preserve on the outskirts of Winnipeg.
“For me, the goal is to raise awareness, get people thinking about the impact of the food we’re buying and consuming,” he said. “Raising insects has a dramatically smaller impact on the world than almost other food — than raising meat, for instance.”