Recipes for a Healthy Planet Make Worms and Algae Tasty

“The Plate,” National Geographic • April 22, 2016

Earth Day is a good time to think about what we’re eating and its impact on the planet. While chefs have long played a role in changing our ideas about food, Alice Waters and other sustainable foodies may have some international competition brewing, if Lars Charas has anything to say about it.

As evidence mounts that our food needs will soon outstrip our food supply—a recent estimate by the World Resources Institute suggests that crop production needs to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to meet demand—Charas, a Danish chef and geographer, is releasing a book this May to call on chefs to rethink the human diet in the face of limited resources and climate change.

This means meals with more veggies and proteins from worms and bugs that actually might taste good. The motivation behind Future Food Cultures: Recipes for a Healthy Planet, to be published by Charas’ organization, Feeding Good, he says, is to use chefs’ expertise to make the most of the planet’s resources right now.

Anchovy fillets on olive bread. Photograph courtesy Lars Charas.

Want to eat lower down on the food chain? Anchovy fillets on olive bread are a good start. Photograph courtesy Lars Charas

“There are 60,000 [plant and animal species] we can eat, but we only eat 30,” says Charas. “All the other 59,970 species we don’t know what to do with it. And so why don’t we use the planet more efficiently?”

If it sounds similar to other sustainably-minded initiatives, Charas is quick to point out his work’s distinctions. Where Slow Food International targets “the elite in larger cities,” mostly consumers, he says, Future Food Cultures is designed to inspire and engage professional cooks and chefs, whether they’re heading up industrial fast food kitchens or white-tablecloth dining rooms.

“There are 1,900 species of insects you can eat…but we hardly know how to prepare them,” laments Charas.

The heart of the book covers recipes for a range of food stuffs that may be a hard sell for home cooks, at least until resources run out: Hummus made with fresh mealworms achieves a “nutty, sweet flavor” from the invertebrates, says Charas, whose Dutch colleague, Bas Cloo, developed the recipe. It is one of two recipes using worms for protein; the other, smoked candletree worms with tropical vegetables, was developed by a chef in New Caledonia.

Meanwhile, chefs from the Nordic Food Lab created a grasshopper garum, a soy-sauce-like condiment to help flavor food (read more about the Food Lab in National Geographic’s food waste issue), and Ghanaian chef Selassia Atadika offers up a dish of honey-caramelized onions and snails.

“There are 1,900 species of insects you can eat…but we hardly know how to prepare them,” laments Charas.

Red Bean Coconut Drink is both healthy and refreshing. Photograph courtesy of Lars

This red bean carrot drink is healthy, refreshing, and full of protein. Photograph courtesy of Lars Charas

The book comes at a time when policymakers and chefs alike are grappling with what climate change will mean for our meals. Earlier this week, the same WRI report mentioned above suggested that simply reducing—rather than eliminating—animal-based food consumption in wealthy countries would make it possible to feed 10 billion people worldwide by 2050 without any agricultural expansion.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of chefs are looking to explore the socio-environmental aspects of their craft. The Chefs Collaborative, founded in 2007, has helped chefs educate diners about sustainable protein, most notably with itsTrash Fish dinners. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation launched its Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, which offers chefs training to advocate for change in the food systems. And in June, the Culinary Institute of America will host its fourth annual Menus for Change conference, bringing together food service professionals to brainstorm ways to address social and environmental concerns through their work.

These Chiogga beetroot sausages have a similar taste and texture to meat, Lars says.

These Chiogga beet sausages have a similar taste and texture to meat. Photograph courtesy Lars Charas

Charas’ vision is different, though, in that it’s looking to spark a global movement of chefs across all sectors of food service. Today, he’s organized task forces in New Caledonia, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, and has working relationships with chefs in Ghana, Kenya, Colombia and South Africa, many of whom contributed recipes to the book.

The idea is to charge each task force with identifying solutions that work for their local food system. In the Netherlands, for example, chefs are experimenting with an 80/20 rule: 80 percent of food should be regional and 20 percent imported; 80 percent vegetable and 20 percent meat. In Kenya, chef Ali Mandhry developed a recipe for ugali, a cornmeal mush, and ketchup.

“Chefs are seen as the shepherds of food culture,” says Charas. They “can seduce consumers and policy makers to think differently,” he says, and that happens first and foremost on the plate. “If we aren’t able to make resilient food cultures more delicious, then we will lose the battle.”

Here’s a recipe from the book:

Smoked Candle-Tree Worms with Wild Tropical Vegetables

by Gabriel LeVionnois

serves 6

1 orange papaya
5 g honey
30 candlenut tree worms
10 g dry candlenut wood chippings
20 g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
20 g galangal, peeled and chopped
20 g turmeric root, peeled and chopped
2 egg whites
400 g mountain taro root, peeled and grated
1 bunch ramps (wild garlic)
15 g fresh green peppercorns
5 ml grapeseed oil, for frying
100 g chayote fruit and shoots, peeled and chopped 100 g fresh wood ear mushrooms
100 g baby cassabanana fruits, peeled and chopped 100 g pumpkin shoots
100 g amaranth (tropical spinach)
100 g basella (Malabar spinach)
100 g leaves from horseradish tree (Moringa oleifera) 100 g edible hibiscus
100 g winged beans (asparagus peas)
50 g candlenuts, skinned
20 g chillies, deseeded and chopped
2 lemongrass stalks, chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves
5 g sugar
milk from 2 coconuts
lemon juice, to taste
1.5 litres coconut oil, for frying
100 g tapioca flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

5 ml grapeseed oil juice of 1 lemon

Living on a tropical island can have advantages beyond those that first spring
to mind. Of course, it’s wonderful to have sunshine, clear seas and unpolluted air, but the flora and fauna can also yield interesting and useful surprises. Fallen and partly decomposed candlenut trees (Aleurites moluccanus), for example, are a favourite breeding ground for worms that provide a useful source of protein. Simply gather them up and place in a wooden box for four days, feeding them daily with grated coconut until fattened and succulent. They can then be cooked with other island produce, such as mushrooms, greens, pods, shoots, herbs and fruit. There is a whole treasure-house of ingredients just waiting to be explored, and this recipe uses a wide selection of them.

Scoop the seeds out of the papaya (you need about 15 g of them) and roast for 5 minutes in a pan at a low heat until crisp or popped. Crush the seeds coarsely and mix with a little salt and the honey.

Place the worms in a bowl, add the papaya seed mixture and leave to marinate for 1 hour.

Put the candlenut wood chippings in a smoker over a low heat. When they start to smoke, insert the worms and smoke for 4 hours.

Combine the ginger, galangal and turmeric with the egg whites to make a paste.

Put the grated taro in a bowl, add the ramps and green peppercorns, then season with salt and pepper.

Combine the dressing ingredients and season with salt and pepper.

Heat 2 ml of the grapeseed oil in a pan and fry the chayote, wood ear mushrooms and cassabanana fruit together for 5 minutes. transfer to a bowl. Deglaze the pan with the dressing, then stir in the pumpkin shoots, amaranth, basella, horseradish leaves, hibiscus and winged beans. Fry for 2 minutes, then combine with the chayote mixture.

Put the remaining 3 ml grapeseed oil in a pan, add the candlenuts, chillies, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and fry on a low heat until they begin to brown. Add the sugar and stir until it starts caramelizing. Slowly add the coconut milk and mix with a stick blender until a smooth sauce forms. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the coconut oil to 150C. Meanwhile, coat the smoked worms in the tapioca flour, then dip them in the taro mixture. Deep-fry for 5 minutes, until crispy and light brown. Serve straight away with the tropical vegetable mixture.

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