by Palmiro Ocampo
Palmiro Ocampo is a chef, an ambassador of WWF-Peru, a member of the Zero Hunger Peru initiative, and co-founder of CCori: Cocina Óptima, a nonprofit that advocates for the reduction of food waste. In 2019, he participated in a panel on the nutritional and resilient power of diversity at the Food Forever Experience Cusco.
Last year, I took a fascinating trip to the Peruvian Amazon to look for gastronomic and nutritional possibilities within one of the rainforest’s richest stocks of biodiversity: its hundreds of different species of edible insects. I had heard a great deal about the enormous potential of insects, an under-utilized yet crucial constellation in the culinary universe, but I certainly did not know everything the Amazon had in store.
It was a calm afternoon, and our group had already wrapped up our program of material collection for the day. All of a sudden, Andrés Amasifuen, local leader of the indigenous community of Rumicallpa, turned to me. “Let’s explore a little bit more,” he said. “Today you will renew your knowledge about edible insects: I’ll introduce you to a species that almost nobody knows.”
It was a beetle larva called a curo – Pachymerus nucleorum to entomologists. We found it living inside a fruit that we picked from a shapaja palm tree. It looked like a small shrimp curled up in the fruit and had a soft and tender texture. To my surprise, but true to its palm fruit habitat, it tasted of coconut milk.
Its habit of living in fruits also makes the curo a promising contributor to more sustainable food systems. We were, after all, able to gather it without harming the tree. This distinguishes the curo from a better-known Amazonian insect, the suri or palm weevil (Rhynchophorus palmarum), which lives inside the trunks of palm trees.
Insect diversity should, and probably will, become part of more and more diets as environmental changes force us to consider other options as protein sources.
From the Amazon to the international agenda
Sustainability is the reason for a new, worldwide re-appraisal of insect food sources. The whole world has committed to ending hunger and malnutrition under the Sustainable Development Goals, and under Target 2.5 we have committed to conserving and using the full spectrum of edible biodiversity. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and numerous independent scientists, insect diversity should, and probably will, become part of more and more diets as environmental changes force us to consider other options as protein sources.
Insect cuisine is already common in many tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Peru, it is largely restricted to culinary traditions of the Amazon. But perhaps not for long.
CCori: Cocina Óptima, a nonprofit organization that pursues food sustainability through a zero-waste “optimal cuisine” model, is working to promote the exploration and research of the edible potential of Peruvian insects. In partnership with a group of renowned entomologists and health and nutrition specialists from Cayetano Heredia University – not to mention chefs like me – it has launched an ambitious research project focused on discovering and disseminating to a wider audience the nutritional potential of these rainforest wonders. A key part of our work is to break through the biases and taboos that people hold around the culture of edible insects, and in our experience, the best way is by convincing their palates.
The conclusion of the project’s first working phase, which involved rigorous social, culinary and scientific research, was the publication of the book Tasty Peruvian Insects: From Traditional Food to Gastronomic Innovation. We want this book to introduce the whole country to species that could be essential foods of the future. To that end, the information within, while deeply researched, is shared without resort to jargon.
The participation of the indigenous community of Rumicallpa was crucial to that research. Rumicallpa is made up of 17 families who live in a mountainous cloud rainforest. While conducting the fieldwork that led to the book, I walked hand in hand in the forest with the people of Rumicallpa; I felt continually nourished by their observant knowledge and cosmovision.
In the lab, our research focused on measuring the density of protein, fiber, healthy fats and carbohydrates in different Amazonian insects, particularly the curo, the suri and the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor). The comparative study showed that the insect which can be most sustainably produced, the curo, is also the highest in protein and healthy fats.
Then, finally, to the kitchen. Our cooking tests explored the culinary potential of the insects in four different states: raw, boiled, puffed and fried. We also tested the subtly enriched flavors of insects that were raised on different diets.
Chefs are the ones who will keep pushing the boundaries, whether they are the boundaries of knowledge, culinary creativity or the use and conservation of the planet’s precious biodiversity.
Recipes that push boundaries
One of the gastronomic creations that resulted was the Piñamorusmashua, an entrée that integrates the best of the Amazon and Andes. The dish incorporates curos that have been fed with brown butter to enhance their taste, and combines the larvae with golden pineapple, Amazonian chestnuts and the Andean tuber mashua.
Recipes may not sound like a big part of the answer to the looming challenge of reinventing sustainable and inclusive food systems, but I believe they are, and every chef has the chance to play a part. We are the ones who will keep pushing the boundaries, whether they are the boundaries of knowledge, culinary creativity or the use and conservation of the planet’s precious biodiversity.
I am convinced that an important part of this boundary-pushing will be a movement – or even better, a wave of local movements – that will invite more and more people to explore, understand and harness the immense potential of edible insects, and in the process motivate a far-reaching food revolution.