Earth, Ash, and Blood: The Unlikely Components of a Nutritious Diet (Part 1)

I have always been fascinated by the incredibly strange things that people have learned to eat through time in order to extract the maximum amount of nutrition from even the most desolate of environments.  

And, it has been rewarding to repeatedly attempt to shed myself of my inherent cultural biases that defines “normalcy” in my diet and try to contextualize why people eat what they do.  To step outside of our comfort zones to try to truly see other dietary practices from an emic, or insider perspective is difficult, considering our perception of food and the place it holds in our lives are so intricately intertwined with everything that we are and everything that we do.  But, when we are able to do this successfully, so many aspects of other people’s dietary practices take on entirely new meanings!


The Search for the Ash Yogurt

Sue Dave Delia Shark.png

Several months ago I met Dave and Sue Brown and Delia Stirling at David Ascher’s Traditional Cheese Making course in Iceland.  After spending a week together and learning about all of the things we have in common - from our love of traditional raw milk cheese to foraging to ancient stone tool technology - they invited me and my family to visit them in Kenya where they operate Brown’s Cheese and spend time working with traditional groups to learn about their contemporary foodways still based on ancestral practices.  After I returned home and mentioned this to my family we jumped at the opportunity - and, I am so incredibly glad we did!

Ash Yogurt being poured for us in a village in West Pokot

Ash Yogurt being poured for us in a village in West Pokot

Preparation for our visit required months and Delia took on the majority of the planning herself.  It was during this time that I kept stressing to her my desire to learn about mursik, a traditional yogurt made with ash in the West Pokot County of Kenya and, if at all possible I also wanted to experience the blood-letting practice of the pastoralists such as the Samburu.  After much work, Delia devised an itinerary that would accomplish all that I wanted and also included the added bonuses of camping in the bush and multiple safaris at Lewa House!  We were all in, and the next few months seemed to drag on forever as we anxiously anticipated our adventure to begin.

 

We started our journey to Kenya after a short visit to Johannesburg where I was presenting at the 2018 ACE, the first Experimental Archaeology Conference held in Africa. Despite the multiple flights, layover in Ethiopia, and hour-long drive to Brown’s Cheese from the Nairobi airport, our expedition to find people producing mursik was just beginning.  After one day’s rest we woke up early and drove an hour in the dark through pouring rain to Wilson Airport where we boarded a small, propeller plane and flew to the more remote area of Kitale.  There we were greeted by our driver, Samuel who would unexpectedly would also later turn out be be our guide. 

Ready to fly

As we sat around Cranes Haven Lodge that evening discussing the research plan for the next day that Delia had arranged with Slow Food Kenya, Samuel overheard us and suggested we travel to the lowlands, further and deeper into the West Pokot area to find people less influenced by modern western diets.   There, he told us, we would find what we were searching for - people still actively engaged in production and consumption of mursik because they still relied upon it as an important component of their daily diets.  And, he assured us that we could also learn how to make traditional honey wine and how the people of West Pokot slaughter and butcher goats and eat their small intestines raw.  This sounded great!  However, it was already 10:00 pm and didn’t know how we would make it all work on such short notice.  With cell phone in hand, Samuel calmly replied that he knew people and could make it happen.  He just needed our go-ahead to “activate his network” to make it happen.  “Activating his network” cost us a little more than we anticipated (and included the purchase of two goats!), but it was worth it because thanks to Samuel and his network, the next day was better than we ever could have ever imagined.

Bill and Samuel working on "activiting his network" at Cranes Haven Lodge

Bill and Samuel working on "activiting his network" at Cranes Haven Lodge

The wonderful Cranes Haven Crew!

The wonderful Cranes Haven Crew!


Setting off to Find Mursik

The day started as planned and, after driving a couple of hours we met with the Kenya Slow Food International representative, Sampson, at the Horizon Hotel who took us to the Tarsoi Village for our first mursik experience of the day.  Sampson explained to us that the Tarsoi Village is actually made up of two separate village, the Tartar and Soibei whose names combine to make Tarsoi (sort of like Benifer - Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner - but longer lasting...). The drive from the hotel to the village was much shorter than I expected.  However, since the paved road quickly changed to dirt and the rectangular concrete block buildings became round wattle and daub thatched structures the scene quickly met our expectations. We parked the cars and waiting for someone to come greet us my sight focused on the fence like metal contraption whose purpose it was to funnel cows into a narrow concrete shallow pool filled with some sort of disinfecting liquid meant to sterilize their legs, bellies and udders.  I thought it out of place for a village that we spent so much time and effort getting to in order to learn more about traditional diets.

 

We heard them from a distance before we saw them… the sound of the singing and the bells and then the bright colored clothing and the dancing.  

 
Being greeted by members of the Tarsoi Village

Being greeted by members of the Tarsoi Village

 
 

It looked as though the entire village was coming to greet us.  Over the next 20 minutes, through the magic of music and dance, we were transformed from spectators into participants.  

 
 
Joining in

Introductions in the Tarsoi Village

We were then escorted to an open grassy area where the villagers had brought a couch from one of their homes for us to sit.  As they gathered around one of them led us in an obligatory prayer.  Then, through the help of an interpreter, the chairman told us the story of the Tarsoi, welcomed us, and thanked god for the kromwo tree, the tree that they burn to obtain the ash to make the mursik, for the medicinal value it brings to them.  Afterward he also thanked the milk for the medicinal value it brings them.  Then he thanked Slow Food because of them, he said, they have been to Italy to show people in other parts of the world how to make the mursik.  Finally, he asked us to go around and introduce ourselves and for each of us to let everyone know why we were there.   Only after we had become a part of the process through the ritual of music, dance and prayer and introduction were they ready to share with us their traditional food, mursik.


The Traditional Process Revealed

We were brought into a small, round, wattle and daub kitchen with a compact dirt floor.  There, three women were huddled around a small fire burning in the hearth.  One held the end of a stick in the fire until the tip was glowing red.  She then stuck the charred end into the gourd all the way to the base and scraped it up along the inside to the top with more pressure than I would have expected.  

Gourds

This resulted in leaving a black streak of ash behind in its path.  This scraping motion was repeated once or twice and then the stick was returned to the fire until it once again glowed red.  The stick was then placed inside the gourd and the scraping motion resumed for a stroke or two.  The repeated scraping inside the gourd and burning in the fire continued until the entire inside of the gourd was coated with black ash.  Excess ashes were shaken out and then the gourd was filled with cows milk.  Immediately, the ash coating inside the gourd changed the bluish/white color of the milk to a speckled grey.  A lid made from the cut-off end of the gourd that utilized a coiled natural cordage twined base that fit snugly over the base was placed on top, and the gourd was set aside to ferment.  As soon as the gourd was set down, indicating the end of the process, I began to bombard them with questions...thankfully they were so incredibly generous and patient with their answers.


This is what I learned:

Notes in Kitchen
Drinking yogurt
  1. The ash is essential to the process because a) it imparts a flavor and the mursik simply does not taste right without it, b) it changes the color and look and the mursik does not look right without it, and c) it provides a medicinal value since it is basic versus the acidity of the fermented milk.
  2. The stick they burned and used to scrape the inside of the gourd they called “kromwo” its genus and species is Ozoroa insignis.  They insisted that the mursik can only be make from a stick from this tree, however, they could not tell me why other than it, “has different properties” and the fact that it forms theproper coal.  In the few instances they can recall not being able to obtain a stick from the kromwo tree they substituted with wood from a native olive tree.  I assume this is the tamiyai or, Olea africana.  
  3. Once the gourd is filled they set it aside to ferment for anywhere from 3 days to 3 months depending on several factors including how much surplus milk they have.  Typically, once the gourd is filled and the milk has fermented for at least three days it is ready to drink.  Before it is consumed the gourd is shaken.  After consumption, the gourd is refilled with new milk and, because the residue from the previous mursik is still alive and active with strong bacterias that were built up during the fermentation process the fermentation of the new milk will only take a day or two!
  4. The milk they used was pasteurized.  Wait, what?  As soon as I heard this Delia and I immediately shot a look at one another.  We are both cheesemakers who deal with raw milk and utilize traditional methods and understand what this means and how dangerous it is.  Raw milk is naturally full of the active bacteria that produces the fermentation.  When the fermentation begins through this process the pH drops and kills off harmful pathogens in the process.  However, the pasteurization process does not discriminate between good and bad bacteria and kills it all leaving behind a blank slate.  There is nothing there to initiate the fermentation nor any good bacteria left to fight harmful pathogens.  That is why modern cheesemakers using pasteurized cheese MUST add a culture of bacteria to the milk to begin the fermentation.  Blank slates such as these are easily colonized by harmful bacteria that have nothing stopping them from taking over and creating a very dangerous situation.  
 
A picture with the village elders before we left to meet a tribe in the Low Lands of West Pokot

A picture with the village elders before we left to meet a tribe in the Low Lands of West Pokot


Into the Lowlands

Other than a nagging, uneasy feeling over their use of pasteurized milk, I felt I accomplished what I set out to do - see mursik production, taste/experience mursik, and observe how mursik production and consumption is influenced by and is an important part of their culture. Nevertheless, Samuel was urging us to say goodbye and load up in the vehicles quickly to provide us enough time to drive all the way to the lowlands.  His promise of an even more traditional mursik experience was romantic and we followed his advice, thanked everyone for sharing such an important part of their lives with us and left.  

The drive was the scariest automotive experience . . . straight drop here with no guard rail

The drive was the scariest automotive experience . . . straight drop here with no guard rail

The drive was rough...in fact, it was the hottest, bumpiest, scariest drive I have ever experienced anywhere in the world!  Recent intense and persistent rains had washed out the sandy dirt roads and our descent down the side of the mountain was risky.  There was no guard rail and not much left of the road.  I was seated right next to the window on the side of the vehicle closest to the edge and, with a clear few of the shear several thousand foot drop and there more than a few times I thought we were going off the road - and there was no chance whatsoever of surviving.  I wondered if this was the right choice and what kind of father I was to put my family in this sort of danger.  For what?  We had already experienced the mursik.  Was it worth it to go this far to witness something a little more traditional?  I seriously wondered if my family was going to survive this experience but it was too late to turn back.  Stopping and attempting to turn around would have been more dangerous than just continuing down the mountain.  We were committed.

Goats on road

Eventually, after almost three hours of descending down the mountain we reached the lowlands and the roads flattened out.  The dirt roads were not in any better shape, but at least we no longer faced the danger of falling down the escarpment.  A while later we turned off the road and drove into the bush eventually stopping at the entrance to a village.

 
 

And again, we heard it before we saw it - the villagers came out to greet us with song and dance!

 
Being greeted Tribe 2
 

The songs were different, but the enthusiasm the same.  

We were all quickly surrounded and, through hand and eye gestures invited to participate.  Once we did we worked our way as a group through the gate. The singing and dancing lasted for about 20 minutes and seemed like every person in the surrounding area participated.  It wasn’t until the music stopped that I realized I was mistaken. 

 
greeting tribe 2
Meeting the Chief

Our driver-turned-guide, Samuel, approached me and pointed out the man in the distance - the single person not participating.  He was laying on a rawhide mat in the shade of a tree with his head resting on a carved wooden headrest.  There was a look on his face of complete indifference and he refused to make eye contact with any of us.  I thought it strange that with all of the festivities - singing and dancing and laughing - that he was positioned where he was in an almost angry state. Samuel informed me that this is Kadel, the head man and that it is my responsibility to go to him and introduce myself before he would acknowledge any of us.  As Samuel, Jason and I walked over Kadel remained steadfast with his eyes seemingly focused on something in the distance.  Whatever he was looking at was not us.  I spoke first and, and through Samuel, thanked him for allowing us to visit him and his people.  A moment passed and then he spoke as Samuel translated.  Kadel asked me to introduce myself and to tell him why we had come - which I did.  As Samuel tried to keep up with my enthusiastic response I told Kadel what I did and all about the Food Evolutions Project and the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College that I was building and how excited I was to learn more about the mursik at a level that would allow me to inform others of this important food that is so integral to the health and well-being of his people in West Pokot.  I wished to develop strategies where I could adapt the approach to make something similar with the resources local to the Eastern Shore of Maryland while meeting the requirements of the local food health and safety standards - an almost insurmountable task unless the process is fully understood. 

 
Chief

When I finished, he stood up and approached me.  My eyes caught the ring knife he wore on the ring finger of his left hand.  I had never seen anything like it before and the intense sun reflected off of the polished metal surface making it look even more ominous.  I didn’t know what to expect, but as he approached me he generously reached out his right hand to greet me and we shook.  At that moment everything changed - a smile came across his face and his eyes brightened.  We began to joke and laugh and I brought him over to introduce him to my family and the rest of the group. 

 

Our 1st Taste . . . Honey Wine 

The rest of the visit was incredible.  We started by drinking honey wine made with the sausage tree fruit to celebrate our visit and, of course there was ritual associated with this practice as well.  One man was in control of the gourd that contained the honey wine and how the wine was distributed.  After removing the plug of branches and leaves that kept the flies out of the wine he spread them out on the ground.  He filled a long, thin bottle gourd with wine and, then, before drinking any wine whatsoever, he ceremoniously sprinkled drops on the ground as an offering to the ancestors.  Then, he began to pass the gourd around to drink.  The first recipient, my 10-year old daughter, Alyssa who was taken aback both by the opportunity to drink alcohol and the bits of dead bees and bee parts, wax, and sticks floating on the surface.  After a few awkward glances she took an obligatory sip and passed the gourd along. Contrary to her experience we all enjoyed the honey wine, some perhaps too much! And, with the added benefit of the social lubrication offered by the honey wine we proceeded to learn how they make their traditional mursik.

 

They prepared the gourd in a very similar fashion at the Tarsoi, except, that it is first rinsed with cow urine and then scraped with a burning end of a stick also from the Kromwo tree.  However, the biggest difference is that they fill the gourd with raw milk and set it aside to ferment.
 Typically, it is consumed around the 3-7 day mark, however, when there is a surplus it is set aside to ferment for much longer period, sometimes for over 6 months and is known as cheposoyo.  It loses quite a bit of moisture over this period and becomes more like cheese than yogurt.  During times of huger a spoonful of the concentrated cheposoyo is mixed with water and drank.  Two servings of this is sometimes the only food consumed each day!

Ladies making yogurt

Then they offered us several month old mursik made from raw goat’s milk - it was amazing!  The flavors and textures were complex but welcome.  There was absolutely no off or strong taste and even the kids went back for seconds!  It is hard to believe that the only ingredients were ash and raw milk fermented in a gourd cleaned with cow urine!


So...after my short but intense experiences with Mursik this is my take:

Bill drinking yogurt with Chief
Yogurt
  1. The ash in “ash yogurt” isn't ash after all, but rather charcoal
     
  2. They are not making yogurt, but instead clabber
     
  3. After watching the process of coating the inside of the gourd with ash/charcoal I think there is a possibility that the practice of using the burned stick to add ash/charcoal to the fermenting milk was not initially for dietary or medicinal purposes.  

Certainly, the presence of the ash/charcoal impacted the flavor, texture, and presentation (look) of the mursik, introduces important minerals to their diet and, it provides medicinal value, but I think something the practice provides which is more basic that has nothing to do with the ash/charcoal is why they first started to do it and continue to this day - the heat of the burning coal cleans the gourd and gets rid of unwanted pathogens.  And, this is why - after watching the process several times, I was struck as how often the stick is returned to the fire until the end is glowing red.  Then, the stick is used to scrape the inside of the gourd only a couple times before it is returned to the fire to burn some more.  This repeated returning to the fire only to scrape a couple times is more than necessary to produce enough ash/charcoal to sufficiently coat the inside of the gourd.  Every time they stuck the stick in the gourd smoke escaped out the opening revealing just how hot the stick actually is!  Also, the inside of the gourds are somewhat rough and porous and I believe a combination of the heat and the pressure they use when they scrape helps the “fibers” of the inside of the gourd compress resulting in a smoother surface and, perhaps the ash/charcoal fill some of the pores. 

If this is correct, then over time the flavor, texture, and look of the mursik would become the standard and requirements for “proper” mursik.  It simply would taste right, or look right, or have the right mouth feel without it.  However, if the addition of the ahs/charcoal was only for dietary or medicinal purposes why not just directly add the ash/charcoal into the milk?

The kids with all our new friends in the Village!

The kids with all our new friends in the Village!


Of course something has to happen on a plane ride . . . 

Walking with Governor

The next day as we boarded the tiny plane in Kitale to return to Nairobi I proudly clutched the gourd that had held the 3-month old goat milk mursik beautifully decorated with cowry shells I received from Kadel the day before.  And, it was that gourd that the four impeccably dressed men who boarded the plane with us noticed and prompted them to ask us who we were and what we were doing.  Taken aback, I explained all about the Food Evolutions project and the Eastern Shore Food Lab to, who is turns out, were the West Pokot Governor, Chief of Staff and two other government officials travelling to Nairobi on government business.  They were excited about what we were doing, why we were doing it and so thrilled to share their traditional food practices with the outside world!  When we landed in Nairobi we exchanged contact information and they invited us back and hoped I would bring Washington College students next time! 

 

Wait till you see our next stop in Kenya!


 
Blood Milk

Stay tuned for the next blog from Africa . . .

Here's a hint to see what we drank with the Somburu!!

 

Bugs on the Menu?


Cricket taco seasoned.jpg

“No, I am putting my foot down on this one. No. No. No . . .You are not allowed to eat them.”  
 

What do you mean? Wait. Are you telling me what I can and cannot eat? I replied in disbelief.  You don’t understand.  I think there is something important in all of this, and, I don’t feel right even having a discussion about the importance of eating insects in prehistoric diets if neither the students nor I had ever eaten any.  Plus, how can I ask the students to try them if I had never tried them?


This was part of the heated discussion between Christina and me almost 15 years ago – at least the part I can remember.   

Earlier that day I had received in the mail, and excitedly opened, a package containing all sorts of edible bugs!  This package had come all the way from Thailand, in fact the name of the company that sold them was “Thailand Unique.”  This package was a big deal for Christina and me for several reasons.  

 
  • First, it was full of edible insects – certainly a first for both of us.  Christina and I were young, on our own and graduate students who were pushing limits and learning about ourselves and one another in the process.  Every time we pushed our own limits the other was becoming keenly aware of what and who they actually married!  A box of edible insects, along with all of the other limits I was pushing at the time seemed to have struck a nerve.  
  • Second, it was the first package I had ever received from overseas.  It floored me that in order to obtain insects suitable and legal for human consumption, at least anything more substantive than a gag or dare gift of scorpions in lollypops or chocolate covered ants, I had to order something from so far away.  
  • And finally, we were two graduate students living on our own trying to make financial ends meet.  My adjunct position at the time paid a criminally low amount and we had very little.  The cost of these edible insects along with shipping fees was a substantial amount of money for us and certainly must have added to Christina’s anger.  
 

But, I firmly believed in my approach to teaching, immersing them using all of their senses, and the importance of taking students outside of their comfort zone in order for them to really learn.  

I had been waiting on this arrival of edible insects to launch a new lesson I had been working on – one focused on modern issues of human diet and health and food security and sustainability within the context of ancestral diets.  I wanted to take my modern western 20-something year old students out of their comfort zone and have them experience what it would be like to consciously eat insects during this lesson – to get over the “yuck” factor – and then be able to discuss with at least some experience entomophagy in the diets of their ancestors and also their contemporaries in other parts of the world.  After all, how could I expect people who had never had any experience with eating insects to engage in a meaningful dialogue about it?  This was my motive and this was what I was trying to get across to Christina. 

 
Despite years of trying, insects still aren't Christina's favorite, but she tries them all and so do the kids!  Here they are in Thailand at Massimo's house tasting some (February 2018).

Despite years of trying, insects still aren't Christina's favorite, but she tries them all and so do the kids!  Here they are in Thailand at Massimo's house tasting some (February 2018).

 

And, eventually I accomplished both and, by doing so I learned a great deal about this approach to teaching and learning.  

Its all about creating context . . . 

and a place where students can safely be taken out of their comfort zone, 
and experience, 
and learn, 
and think about something that is not easy, not familiar.

This is where real learning takes place and this is where real innovation takes place.  We need both in order to address the real issues of human diet and health and sustainability.  And, it turns out, everyone really gets a lot out of eating insects!


Insects Become Woven into my Teaching

I served insects at the party after I defended my dissertation.  I organized student-led annual insect bake sales at Washington College for 10 years now and strived every year to create the correct the proper context for maximum results.  That context requires not only a safe place but also one that is informed and focused on the important aspects of insects as food… NOT a dare or FEAR FACTOR type situation.  

Apples & Bugs
Eating bugs with Billy
Students at the Bake Sale
 
Stuck under the steps for our Insect Bake Sale

Stuck under the steps for our Insect Bake Sale

And, is needs to be in the right setting so that it just simply “feels” right.  It took years, but after much persistence we finally accomplished it.  For years we were stuck beneath the steps leading up to the dining hall.  We could not get permission to serve insects in the dining hall for fear that doing so would compromise the commercial kitchen status of the college’s food facility.

Every year I would call the county’s board of health department and try to get permission and each year the best they could do was to tell me that as long as it was to a closed audience and there was not actually any money exchanged and that we were not in the college’s “real” cooking or dining facilities then I could do it.  This meant that I was not allowed to advertise to spread the important message of insects as food to a larger audience.  However, most problematic was the fact that I was not allowed to serve insects . . . food that has been in our diet for probably at least 7 million years . . . where the students actually ate.  This ruined the setting and sent the exact opposite message than I was trying to send. . . How was I supposed to have the students think of this as real food if everyone in authority was saying that they were not allowed to eat it where real food was prepared or served?  


A Breakthrough . . .


Finally, it happened and it was brilliant! 
 

A few years ago, when the director of the food safety inspector for our county realized that I was not going away and I was not going to stop searching for straight answers about insects as food and whether or not they can be prepared in commercial kitchens and served in licensed dining facilities.  And, it turns out that insects fall under the G.R.A.S. classification – this means Generally Recognized as Safe.  It actually is at the same level as salt and pepper and we could, in fact serve them in the dining hall! 

 

So, with an army of amazing students and staff at the college we built a makeshift “food truck” out of cardboard, created traditional Oaxacan tacos entirely from scratch, and served tacos in the dining hall.  

Cricket truck
 
 

To make the entire experience even more rewarding we invited Pat Crowley from Chapul Bars to interact and speak to the students.  Pat is the owner of Chapul, a company that makes protein bars from cricket flour (dried, roasted, and ground up crickets).  We set up a station on the side of the dining hall where students could create their own power bars from scratch on the spot and Pat, the very guy who does this for a living, was there to help them.  

 
Pat Crowley  from  Chapul Bars  making cricket flour protein balls

Pat Crowley from Chapul Bars making cricket flour protein balls

 
 

We even had one of our students, Kathy Thornton, dress up in a cow outfit and wear a sign that read, “Eat More Crickets.”  It was a great success and resulted in an even bigger event last year, Bugs: They’re What’s for Dinner where we actually took over one of the food stations in the dining hall for dinner and insect tacos were offered as a genuine option for dinner!  

Eat Mor Crickits
Cooking in the Cafe
Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of  Entomo Farms , cooks Cricket tacos with WAC Anthropology students

Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of Entomo Farms, cooks Cricket tacos with WAC Anthropology students

 

We organized a series of events that led up to this dinner that included a screening of two documentaries on entomophagy, Bugs: A Gastronomic Adventure with the Nordic Food Lab and Bugs on the Menu.  The highlight of the entomophagy series was a lecture by Jarrod Goldin, co-founder of Entomo Farms, a farm in Canada that organically produces insects for human consumption.  To promote the event I appeared on WBAL – the Baltimore News station where I prepared insect tacos live with Jennifer Franciotti.  

 
 

Bill Schindler, with Washington College, talks about insect food and Jennifer Franciotti takes a bite 

 

The Missing Link: Creating the Context

The importance of both insects as food as well as the message behind it is a powerful one and I wanted to learn more about how people really traditionally incorporate insects in their diets in other parts of the world.  I had read everything I could find written about entomophagy, viewed everything I could from the internet and even experimented on my own.  But, what I was lacking was the background…the context.  In order to make insects a real part of our diet again I needed to experience what is it like to actually have it be a part of the diet from people who actually consume insects still today.  I am tired of superficial patches we put on addressing food issues – we hide behind key phrases that are trending in the modern food world, but do not really make real progress to change anything.  Even though intentions are usually good, part of the problem is because we don’t fully comprehend the scope of what we are trying to do. Traditional societies still practicing traditional forms of food processing and consumption are incredibly rich sources of information in this regard. 

 

Insects are going to be a real part of the Eastern Shore Food Lab we are building and, as a result it has always been on the “bucket list” for the Food Evolutions project.  The question was…where to go…and where better to go than where it all started for me?  Thailand!!!!  I just needed to figure out where to go and what to do…  This was not an easy task and after months of trying to plan the research trip, I finally caught a break – and everything about it was unexpected!


Finally, a contact . . .

Bushmills

Christina and I walked past the peat fire slowly to absorb as much of the warmth as possible on this frigid and damp Northern Ireland winter night.  We had just entered the Bushmills Inn on an unexpected “date night” and quickly located a table in a dimly lit corner of their beautiful dining room.  The kids were exhausted from exploring Northern Ireland.  Just an hour earlier we checked into our AirBnB and, once they entered they didn’t want to leave.  Christina and I were ready to get a bite to eat and, since town was within walking distance, a much needed drink after our busy day. The kids, on the other hand, were in awe of the high water pressure in the shower and fast internet service – two “luxuries” we did not have back in our house in Dublin.  A dream evening to them, they explained, was a hot shower, catching up with their friends on social media, and doing a little research on our upcoming research trip to Thailand.  So, they urged us to have a date night and simply asked us to stop at the “chipper” on the way home for them to pick up fish & chips.  Christina and I quickly took them up on the offer.

 

The kids were safe and Christina and I were out on a date!  The only thing important enough to interrupt holding Christina’s hands across the table was when the waitress arrived with two glasses of Bushmills whisky.  We picked up the glasses, looked in each others eyes, toasted with a full-blown Irish, “Sláinte”, and, as we were bringing the glasses to our lips for our first taste of the whiskey my phone buzzed with a text from Billy that simply read,

“I just found your new best friend.” 

I quickly messaged him back informing him that his mother and I were enjoying a quiet, device free moment, but I also let him know that I was eager to learn what he found when we got back.  As soon as we walked in the door, Billy was so excited to show me what he had found - a restaurant in Bangkok called “Insects in the Backyard.”  The chef, Mai Thitiwat (who Billy thought would be my new best friend) had created a restaurant that showcased insects in dishes that were both inspiring in taste and presentation.  I immediately emailed the restaurant and explained what I was looking for in this research trip and asked if there was anyone there that could help me make the contacts I necessary to make it all happen.


The Plan

The next day I received an email from Regan who not only worked at the restaurant, but is also a member of the AFFIA (the Asian Food and Feed Insect Association).   She couldn’t help me directly, but was willing to put me in contact with someone that could, Nathan Preteseille, the coordinator the AFFIA.  As it turns out, Nathan and the AFFIA were willing and able to help – and help they did.  After numerous emails and Skype calls, Nathan and the AFFIA organized an agenda that satisfied all three components I was looking for in the research trip:

  1. Experience insect consumption at a fine dining establishment
  2. Experience insects as food at a local market in Bangkok
  3. Experience insect production, harvest, preparation and consumption at a traditional level with a traditional group

NOTE: The AFFIA set up all the contacts, a translator, meetings and reservations.  I cannot say enough about how professional they were in every aspect of the planning and execution of this trip.  It would not have been possible without them.


The Barter…

Our first full night in Bangkok we were scheduled to experience a meal at Insects in the Backyard, but, first, we had to go to the Unicorn Café!  I had made a deal a few weeks earlier with my 10-year old daughter, Alyssa that if she promised to try all of the insects while we were in Thailand we would take her the one place in Thailand she wanted to go – the Unicorn Café.  This café is fully focused on Unicorns – the décor the food and even the Onesies you can rent and wear at the table are themed, Unicorn!  Everything has rainbow swirls, glitter and usually has some sort of a “cone” representing a unicorn’s horn stuck in it.  She was in unicorn heaven and I had absolutely no problem making this deal because I knew it would be equally magical for her to experience traditional entomophagy with an open mind.

The rainbow feast
Unicorn Cafe

Insects in the Backyard

That evening, with the Unicorn Café under our belt, we got a real taste of what it is like to fuse modern cuisine with a Stone Age diet…through a meal focused on insects!!  We joined Nathan Preteseille, the coordinator of the AFFIA and an innovator in insect product development inside the Chang Chui Bangkok Plane Night Market for dinner at chef Mai Thitiwat’s restaurant, Insects in the Backyard, for an incredible meal filled with several different varieties of crickets, bamboo worms, silk worm pupae, ant and ant larvae!  Chef Mai did not attempt to “hide” the insects in the food, but instead found incredible ways to highlight their uniqe flavors and textures in delicious and beautiful dishes.  The insects were front and center of each and every meal, but in an artistic and well-planned and executed way.  It was obvious as we looked and and tried these dishes the amount of planning, executing and skill it took to create them. 

 Insects in the Backyard Night
Menu options
Risotto with friends

The entire meal was an amazing way to experience what it possible when you transform the nutrient dense food of our ancestors in ways that exceed the expectations of taste, texture, and presentation of the modern western palate!  And, Chef Mai’s approach is an extremely important one – it is not enough to just believe in the nutrient density of the food you are serving.  Biologically, that approach makes complete sense, however, culturally we have expectations and needs that require a calculated approach.  Chef Mai, through his work with insects, was able to create dishes that exceeded my expectations of flavor, texture and presentation.  I learned a ton, even through this experience of one multi-course meal, that I cannot wait to use in the Eastern Shore Food Lab when we launch!

 
Delicious dinner at Insects in the Backyard highlighting Entomophagy in Bangkok, Thailand! See the gourmet menu we enjoyed!
 
 

After expressing our gratitude and thanks to Chef Mai we took a few pictures and said goodnight.  The night ended with a walk through the Chatuchak Night Market – a complete sensory overload experience where the kids got their first taste of Dragon Breath Candy - a well deserved treat after the insect eating (see video)! We explored the market until fully exhausted and took a tuk tuk taxi back to the hotel.  Christina fell asleep on the couch and I crashed while the kids attended to their social media.  I had a hard time falling asleep because I was so excited for the two full days of entomophagy immersion that was about to take place!


A Food Market Like No Other & Bugsolutely

The next morning we woke early, or, at least early for us, and scrambled downstairs to throw down some of the hotel’s breakfast before the taxi arrived to take us on the next stop on our agenda.  The plan was to meet Massimo Reverberi and David Pattison of Bugsolutely for a tour of the Khlong Toei Market with a focus on the edible insects that were for sale and then to return to his house and the head office of Bugsolutely to sample his company’s Cricket Pasta and to talk about his approach to entomophagy.

 
Massimo, David & Bill
 

 

The tour through the market was incredible and Massimo did an excellent job of pointing out and explaining all of the aspects of the market that may seem strange to Westerners like us.  We passed the live chickens in the woven basket cages that were located adjacent to their butchered colleagues on cutting boards cut in half and displaying golden orange orbs - their unlaid eggs (a nutrient-dense delicacy) intact!  

 

We passed piles of skinned rats that were being sold as food and fish slithering across tables, jumping out of buckets and even trying to escape on the floor! We passed mesh bags full of live bull frogs that the vendors were happy to kill and clean for you on the spot.  We passed countless pigs and cows in various states of butchering and corresponding buckets full of all the offal – from hearts to intestines – all for sale for food.  Nothing went to waste.  

 

frogs
Bits
rats
 
 

The sights and odors and state of the floor were strange and sometimes off-putting to our Western senses.  But, there was something beautiful and visceral about the entire thing.  There was no question where the food was coming from and who grew/raised/harvested it.  There was a direct connection between the producer and consumer.  During each and every transaction – the producer and consumer saw one another, spoke to one another, and inadvertently touched hands when they passed payment of bags from seller to buyer.  You cannot put a price tag on that.  

 
 
Market

There were no hand washing stations, the ground was filthy and there was no refrigeration – to our Western standards this may seem like a dangerous place from which to obtain our food.  But, I would argue the exact opposite!  I believe, save for directly acquiring your own food, it may be one of the safest and healthiest food systems on the planet!  Nothing is hidden from the consumer.  Much of what they are buying is alive and killed in front of them.  There is no doubt about the freshness.  The producers get the chance to see their consumers and their families who they will be feeding with their food purchase and there is an inherent sense of responsibility that is not present in the anonymous and disconnected industrialized food system.

 

But, we were there to see the bugs!  After weaving through what seemed liked endless aisles of different foods we came to the section where insects were for sale.  There were four different types of crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo worms, silkworm pupae (they came from China and are a by-product of the silk industry), water beetles and mounds of weaver ant eggs.  We watched for awhile as people came and purchased insects and observed the interactions.  Even though I didn’t speak Thai it was obvious that the people purchasing the insects to take home to cook were not doing it for “survival” or because they couldn’t afford anything else.  In fact, many of them came to the insects stalls with bags overflowing with other food they had purchased at the market.  No, they were purchasing the insects for food because many of them grew up eating insects and it was a traditional food source for them complete with all of the memories associated with a food that is that ingrained in a culture.  I couldn’t wait for my family and me to experience what that sort of a tradition was really like.  I only had to wait one more day…

 

When we were finished Massimo brought us back to his home and Busgsolutely office where we sat down for a thorough discussion about his approach to providing his customer’s with nutrient dense insects.  His approach is different than Chef Mai’s.  Massimo believes that he can reach a lot more people, especially Westerners, more quickly and effectively by using cricket flour to enhance the nutritive properties of foods with which we are already comfortable.   Perhaps it is his Italian heritage, but Massimo accomplishes his goal be creating pasta made with cricket flour, essentially ground, dry roasted crickets. 

 
Bill & Massimo talking about the nutriental benefits of eating insects while the table is covered in edible insect food products from around the world.

Bill & Massimo talking about the nutriental benefits of eating insects while the table is covered in edible insect food products from around the world.

 

 

Massimo is not trying to hide the fact that there are crickets in the pasta.  The fact that he calls his company Bugsolutely and calls his product “Cricket Pasta” supports this.  However, he doesn’t believe in foods that stick the insects directly in your face either.  He is concerned that doing so elicits a “dare” type mentality where insects are seen as a pawn a game of dare instead of a nutrient dense and sustainable source of food.  He also believes that his product – pasta with a familiar taste and shape, albeit a slightly darker hue as a result of the cricket flour, is a much more accessible way to deliver good nutrition to his customer base. 

Enjoying the pasta
Schindlers with Massimo

 

He then brought a large pot of water to a boil and dumped in a couple boxes of his cricket pasta to cook.  A few minutes later my family and I sat down and enjoyed a delicious meal of cricket pasta with pesto with the Italian owner of Bugsolutely.  It was a great experience and another opportunity to experience a completely different approach to entomphagy – exactly what I was looking to do!


The Traditional Experience

In order to make the most of this incredible opportunity in Thailand, I wanted for me and my family to experience as many different aspects of entomophagy as possible during our stay!  To me this meant not only a fine dining experience focused on entomophagy, a tour of a city market filled with edible insects, and pasta made with cricket flour, but, also an immersive opportunity to experience every part of the “culture” surrounding the processes of traditional entomophagy that are typically hidden from interlopers like us.  I wanted us to participate in the harvesting, cooking and consumption of the insects with people that do it as a regular part of their lives.

That is exactly why we took a 40 minutes flight from Bangkok to Phitsanulok and stayed the night in the Factory 8 hostel.  In the morning we were greeted in the hotel lobby by Nikki Patspon who would serve as our translator for the day.  We jumped in the van and, after an hour long drive arrived at the Boonchoo Weaver Ant Egg Farm.  As we turned off the dirt road and headed up the lane that led to his house, the jungle around became dominated by mango trees.  And, all of the trees seemed to be connected by thin red pieces of twine that made geometric designs in the landscape.  I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at.

view
Meeting everyone

Boonchoo Kitsantria, the ant egg farmer quickly came out to welcome us.  He was a thin, sinewy man and was dressed in a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and tall rubber boots.  At the time it seemed strange to me that he was covered in so many clothes in the hot day, but his attire would soon make sense…to all of us.  His also donned an ear-to-ear smile, which suggested he was genuinely excited to have us.  We piled out of the van and, through the translator introduced ourselves to him.  

Wasting no time, he handed us all different bits of equipment ranging from a bottle of Hele’s Bluboy (a sweet red syrup), a bottle of M-150, a plate with bits of leftover cooked fish and rice, a long bamboo pole with a large bag on the end, and a large dish.  Laden with our supplies he ushered us into the mango grove and stopped at a pole with a plastic crate on top

into the woods
 

It was here that he, through our translator, began to explain how he came to be a full-time weaver ant egg farmer.  He used to be a mango farmer, but when he realized that the eggs of the weaver ants that inhabit the mango trees would be more productive for him to harvest and sell he made the switch.  Ant eggs have always been a traditional part of his and his fellow villager’s diets so the switch was not a drastic one.He then began to explain the farming and harvesting process to us.  These ants are called “weaver” ants because they weave intricate homes out of the leaves of the mango trees.  It is in their woven homes that they lay copious amounts of eggs this time of year.  In fact, the weaver ant egg harvest season is approximately two months.  His job is to ensure the ants are well feed so that they produce as many eggs as possible and then to harvest the eggs when the time is right.  

In between clumps of trees he has placed posts topped with plastic crates.  In these crates he places whatever leftover food they have from the previous night’s meal – it could be rice, or fish, or rat, or frog, or any combination.  The red lines I observed from the van extend from the mango trees to these posts topped with plastic crates and serve as easily maneuverable paths for the ants to collect the food in the crates and bring it back to the houses to feed the queen’s who are laying the eggs.  When we looked close we couldn’t believe the shear number of ants that were walking on the lines nor the size of the food they were carrying backs to their nests!  In many cases they were working together to transport large pieces of foods on these wires.  He then had all of us taking turns feeding the ants with the leftover cooked fish and rice we brought out. 

Ants on the line
 
The ant food

He then showed us bottles affixed to the sides of the posts which he filled with sugar-rich red liquid for the ants.   There were red lines that extended to these bottles as well.  Each bottle also contained a stick that extended out of the liquid and acted like a ladder for the ants to easily get down into the bottle and drink the liquid.  He had us mix up a sugary Hele’s Bluboy with M-150, an energy drink very similar to Red Bull – both of which originated in Thailand and we filled the bottles.  He explained that the M-150 was there to make the ants “extra active!”  Once we finished feeding the ants he handed me the large dish and he grabbed the long pole with the bag on the end and brought us deeper into the mango grove.

Explaining process

As we walked he pointed out the weaver ant nests in the trees to us.  We were early in the ant egg harvesting season so he was searching for one that looked ready and full of eggs.  Finally, he found one that looked appropriate and reached his log pole up into the tree and used the end of the stick to shake the ants and eggs out of the nest.  The idea was that they would all fall into the bag below – and, most of them did.  However, we quickly realized why he was dressed in the manner he was!  

The ants that missed the bag and fell onto the ground were extremely agitated by the disturbance and were looking for vengeance!  Weaver ants are known for an extremely painful bite and within seconds we were all getting attacked by them.  

It must have been a comical sight - Boonchoo was busy harvesting ant eggs from the mango tree with his pole and bag while a family of American’s in short pants and shore sleeved shirts were dancing around withering in pain trying to brush off the ants that were attacking us!  

Finally, he had a bag full of ants and eggs which he dumped into the large dishes and proceeded to “winnow” it using the breeze to cast the ants aside leaving only the smaller, denser eggs behind. 

Getting the eggs

The spread

The Meal!

When we were finished he brought us to his the patio behind his house where many members of the village were waiting for us to show us how to prepare the ant eggs traditionally.  The tables were covered with food and, all of it except for one of the fruits came from Boonchoo Weaver Ant Farm property!   They had all done an incredible amount of work preparing for our visit.  Bonchoo caught and cooked a snake head fish from his pond where he raises them.  There were vegetables, and fruits, and rice and leaves and a bowl full of weaver ant eggs waiting for us to learn how to transform into a meal.

The women from the village sprang into action and began to show us how to prepare ant egg omelets and ant egg salad.  The kids cracked the eggs, mixed the ingredients, and cooked the ant egg omelets while Christina and I helped to prepare and mix the ant egg salad, Yam Kai Mot Daeng.  

Cooking the ant omlette
Egg Omlette
Brianna Cooking

We all learned how to fold Betel leaves around the ant egg salad in a traditional manner to use as a both an edible utensil and bowl.  Once wrapped in the leaf the idea is to pop the entire morsel into your mouth at once.  The bitter flavors of the leaf explode in your mouth the same moment you begin to taste the flavors of the salad which, of course, includes the rich fatty flavors of the ant eggs.  It is well known around the world that bitter and fat work well together and probably accounts for the combination here as well.  It certainly works.   The textural difference between the tough leaf and the soft salad is equally as unique.  I can honestly say that eating this traditional food is more than just fulfilling a nutritional need, but rather an experience.  The omelets the kids prepared with the help of the villagers were equally as delicious and complex.  It was a thick omelet that contained copious amounts of ant eggs. 

Ant egg salad

 

In addition to these dishes there were roasted crickets for us to snack on and tons of fruit including mangoes and rose apples and bananas.  There was grilled snake head fish.  There was rice and spices and tons of vegetables.  And, for desert, there were steamed sticky rice cakes with bananas wrapped in banana leaves.  

Each and every component of every food we consumed was ripe, delicious, made by hand, steeped in tradition and was nutrient dense.  

Snakehead fish
Spread
 

 

With the exception of the bananas, each and every ingredient came from the ant farmer’s property.  This was a meal rich in tradition and was a meaningful, magical experience.

 

 

Next Stop - Cricket Farm!

After leaving the ant egg farmer we headed off to visit Miss Pat to see her cricket farm and had the opportunity to tour the farm and harvest crickets.  Her crickets take 45 days to grow to the point they can be harvested at which point she boils them for 10 minutes and sells them to a processing plant where they are vacuum packed and put into cold storage.  From there they are distributed where they can then be cooked in any numbers of ways which can include roasting and grinding to make flour such as that used by Massimo in his cricket pasta.

Collecting crickets
Scooping crickets
Group at the Cricket Farm

Insect “Take-Aways”

Christina excited

Our entomophagy experiences in Thailand were powerful and diverse – exactly what I was looking for.  It wasn’t about eating insects – I have been doing that for years.  I wanted to get to know more about the different approaches and the “cultures” surrounding all aspects of entomophagy.  And, I wanted to experience it not just through my eyes – the eyes of a 45-year-old Western man, but also an adult woman, a high school girl, a middle school boy and an elementary school girl.  Just like most other people involved in entomophagy I am looking to find ways to take this nutrient dense, sustainable food source that our ancestors have relied upon for millions of years acceptable and relevant to the Modern Western Diet.  Experiencing all of these different approaches with different members of my family is an excellent way to do this.

 

There were so many “take-aways” from these insect-eating experiences, but I will leave you an anecdote about how my 10-year old daughter Alyssa responded to the different insects eating experiences.  Even the Unicorn Café trip and the expertly prepared and beautifully plated dishes at Insects in the Backyard were not enough for her to try the dishes.  She did a little better with the cricket pasta with Massimo, but even then only ate one piece.  I held up my end of the bargain and was even willing to put on the unicorn onesie if she wanted me to, but she simply would not eat the bugs – it was too foreign and strange to her.  That is, until we were immersed in the context with people and traditions that use insects as a real component of their diet.  It was that experience with the ant egg farmer, his family, and the villagers harvesting and cooking beside them, that created an experience magical and meaningful enough to break down the barriers modern western lifestyles have created for Alyssa and she ate the ant egg omelet, she at the ant egg salad and she ate the crickets. 

Alyssa with the ants
Alyssa feeding the ants
Eating the leave with eggs

 

This shows me that there is no substitute for real, meaningful, honest interaction between people around food. The connections and context and understanding that these interactions can create between us and our food are exactly what is needed to create and maintain meaningful changes to our modern diets.

 

The Schindlers at the Ant Farm