When Dror Tamir set out to find alternative sources of protein to feed malnourished populations in Africa and Asia, he found one: grasshoppers.
Billions of people already eat grasshoppers: In Japan, they are called inago and eaten sweet. In Thailand, China, and Indonesia they are deep-fried. In the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia and Yemen—they are roasted on a fire. In many African countries they are pan-fried with a little oil and salt. Mexicans fry them with chilies and lime, or they can be chopped and served inside a taco.
If the idea of eating grasshoppers wasn’t entirely new, what Tamir decided to do with them was: He co-founded Hargol FoodTech, the world’s first commercial grasshopper-farming venture. And now, in northern Israel, Tamir raises bugs.
Most of the world’s grasshopper supply comes from collecting them in the wild, with a very limited seasonal availability. Hargol—which means grasshopper in Hebrew—takes a different approach. A onetime accountant with more than a decade’s experience in food- and nutrition-related business ventures, Tamir breeds the insects on a farm near the Sea of Galilee and markets them globally, to developed and underdeveloped countries alike.
The idea of eating grasshoppers isn’t an easy one for Americans, or Israelis, to swallow. But Tamir believes we should get used to it, for nutritional reasons. Grasshoppers, he says, contain 70 percent protein, as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, iron, zinc, folic acid, and more. Another reason is ecological: Entomophagy (eating insects) is considered to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional animal livestocking.
Tamir can go on and on about the benefits of eating grasshoppers: “Grasshoppers eat green grass almost exclusively and contain very low fat,” he told me. “Their taste and smell are much more neutral than other insects. That’s why they are the most popular insect to eat around the world. With simple seasoning, their taste can be easily altered to different culinary styles.”
When I asked him if he really thought Americans would eat insects, he was adamant: “Yes, I believe grasshoppers will be like sushi,” he said. “In the ’80s the idea of eating raw fish in the U.S. was also considered crazy. Insects have the same potential, especially since for large populations, like Mexicans, they are already considered a delicacy. The hottest-selling food item these days at the Seattle Mariners’ stadium is chapulines, which are toasted grasshoppers with Key lime salt and chili powder. Many young people today are open to new ideas in order to eat healthier and in a more eco-friendly manner and many are into the paleo diet. I believe they will be happy to add grasshoppers to their diet. I know it still sounds far-fetched, but Ikea is already developing mealworm meatballs as part of a range of sustainable eco-friendly dishes and PepsiCo is exploring insect protein for their Doritos, so I can safely say that the future is already here.”
In Israel, said Tamir, it may be even easier to put grasshoppers on the mainstream menu. “In Israel a few populations used to eat grasshoppers: Jews who immigrated from Yemen, Morocco, and Algeria brought this tradition with them. They used to eat grasshoppers especially in the 1950s when there was a food shortage. Israeli Arabs and Palestinians also used to eat grasshoppers. In those days swarms of desert locusts came to Israel and it was easy catching them in the wild. However, in Israel, like everywhere else, people adopted modern manners of eating and stopped catching their food in the wild. But I believe that the populations who used to eat grasshoppers will be happy to resume doing so.”
Until that happens, most of his company’s income will come from selling grasshopper protein powder to food manufacturers. At the moment many food products, from energy bars to beer, already contain crickets and mealworms; Tamir wants to add grasshoppers to that list. He told me that their first grasshopper products—ready-to-eat grasshoppers as well as products containing grasshopper powder—will be available in the United States later this year.
Israeli photographer and travel-blogger Dana Lev Levnat told me that she ate grasshoppers in a market in Cambodia (they were crunchy and pretty bland) and in Mexico (local friends would always order guacamole with chapulines, which she quite liked). One memory of Cambodia that still makes her smile is entering a hotel in Kampong Cham, a city on the Mekong River. She entered her room and was annoyed to find it swarming with grasshoppers. She asked to change rooms and the second room was the same. The security guard didn’t understand what the problem was. She pointed to the grasshoppers, so he closed the window, picked a handful of the insects from the wall and put them in his mouth. After he swallowed, he smiled and said: “No problem.”
Although she saw many people eat grasshoppers on her travels, Levnat doesn’t believe that western society is ready for this. “I think it would be difficult to brand grasshoppers as a culinary trend,” she told me. “We are still afraid and disgusted by insects and dislike the idea of ingesting them. I’d be happy to be proven false and to suddenly see grasshoppers in the supermarket, if only because it would herald cultural openness.”
Grasshoppers are the only kosher insect in the world, but not all kinds of grasshoppers are kosher. The Talmud states: “Any kind of grasshopper that has four walking legs, four wings, two jumping legs, and whose wings cover the greater part of its body is kosher.” Using that information, as well as the traditions of Yemenite, Moroccan, and Algerian Jews, there are rabbis who have identified a few specific species of grasshoppers as kosher, while others believe that the identity of those species is still in dispute. “We know exactly which grasshoppers are kosher,” Tamir told me. “Grasshoppers are also halal for Muslims and they were even mentioned in the New Testament: John the Baptist ate grasshoppers dipped in honey.”
Ari Zivotofsky, a rabbi and professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University, spent decades researching the kashrut of exotic species and gives a course at Bar Ilan on animals and halacha. Together with Ari Greenspan, he created the concept of and organized “halachic seudahs”: kosher meals of exotic animals, to pass along disappearing kosher-food traditions. They held a few of these educational dinners in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and grasshoppers were on the menu. “There is no question that until the early 20th century Jews from Yemen and parts of North Africa ate grasshoppers without hesitation,” Zivotofsky told me.
“There had been a controversy in Morocco in the 18th century when one of the most famous and influential Moroccan rabbis prohibited them, but that seems to have had only a small effect,” said Zivotofsky “For the most part, the Jews of those countries continued to eat them. With the ingathering of the exiles, kashrut organizations have tried to standardize kashrut standards, and to make them as broadly acceptable as possible. Thus as of now, there are none that give certification to grasshoppers, although I can envision some less mainstream Sephardi organizations agreeing to give kashrut certifications to grasshoppers. As the popularity of eating grasshoppers increases in the general western world, I think that there will be some bottom-up pressure and that we will find them kosher-certified and Jews eating them. There is one species about which I think there is very little question that it was eaten by the Yemenite and North African Jews, and thus can be said to have a kosher tradition.”
Tamir ate his first grasshopper three years ago, during a tasting event for investors who’d been invited to learn about the potential of grasshoppers as a global source of protein. “A team from CNN came to film the event,” Tamir recalled. “At that point I’d never eaten insects before and despite all my efforts to look cool and seem like I’m enjoying the experience, the video showed a different story. Since then I’ve eaten grasshoppers many times, and by now I’m used to the idea. My whole family adopted the idea, too. My wife has gotten used to the fact that we always have grasshoppers in the freezer and a box of dried grasshoppers on the kitchen counter, and my kids are absolutely crazy about eating grasshoppers!”
When I met with Tamir, I knew I’d have to eat my first grasshopper, if only to be polite. Somehow, I ended up eating two. They were oven roasted, without any seasoning or sauce—so I could appreciate the true natural taste of the insect. It was different. Very different. The fact that I didn’t faint when removing the wings and legs was an achievement in itself. And the taste is very difficult to describe, which is why I ate the second one, which didn’t bring me any closer to finding an answer to the question: What does a grasshopper taste like? All I can say is that it was crunchy and, frankly, disgusting.
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Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.