Japan’s edible insect industry is shooting for the mainstream. Major firms have begun noticing the appeal of nutritious and sustainable bug-based food, while some chefs are devising new culinary experiences for adventure-seeking diners.
One business making big strides is Tokyo-based startup Takeo Inc, which offers a variety of dried and packaged bugs ranging from crickets to scorpions, and last year entered into a capital tie-up with frozen food giant Nichirei Corp.
Takeo’s CEO, Takeo Saito, said that contact first came from Nichirei, as the firm acknowledged the role insects could play in the future of food security.
“Right now the agreement is just for (financial support),” Saito said, adding that the two businesses are working on a jointly developed bug product to be formally announced in the summer.
Saito says he eats bugs because he enjoys “simple and fresh food,” something he grew up with in his hometown of Kesennuma, a fishing community in Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
In addition to buying online, the curious can sample Takeo products along with some hot tea at their specialty cafe, Take-Noko.
Located in the capital’s Taito Ward, the cafe also includes some freshly made dishes.
One item that has become a big hit since its debut last October is the silkworm cocoon sashimi. The dish, almost entirely composed of a protein called sericin, has a mild taste and a texture that is moist but crunchy. Much like seafood sashimi, it is served with soy sauce and ginger.
Shoichi Uchiyama, Japan’s most prominent insect connoisseur, is well-versed in bug eating. He talks of how much the scene has changed in the last decade in a bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya shopping district over a plated assortment of several creepy crawlies.
Uchiyama, while using a small pair of scissors to cut parts of a giant water bug, not unlike how it is done with a crab, said that eating insects in Japan is often seen as the undesirable outcome of losing a bet in a so-called “batsu” penalty game, or something relegated to waning regional traditions.
Uchiyama himself hails from Nagano Prefecture, central Japan, which has such a tradition, and he has been eating bugs since he was young. In Nagano, insects such as “inago” locusts are consumed after being cooked in soy sauce and sugar.
“But people really started paying attention to eating insects after a 2013 United Nations report,” he said, referring to a document published by the international body’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The report promoted entomophagy, or human consumption of insects, for their nutritional content and touted their importance amid the growing issue of food insecurity as the population increases.
Recent U.N. predictions say there will be 9.7 billion people on Earth by 2050.
According to the report, crickets are packed with protein and a particularly sustainable food source. They are omnivorous, meaning they are less picky than solely vegetation-eating bugs like locusts, and are 12 times more efficient in converting feed to meat than cattle.
Crickets are among insects that do not require land clearing to expand production, and they emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock, the report said.
With labor shortages likely to become a bigger problem amid Japan’s aging population, one joint venture is trialing breeding crickets for food with an eye toward the future, anticipating that automated insect farms could utilize the country’s growing number of idle workspaces.