Fruity ants, amadumbe and the present and future of food
Food science may not come across as the sexy side of cuisine. But it is cutting edge territory. Durban professor, Eric Amonsou, is happy bugging us to look more favourably at indigenous African crops for our dining pleasure, gut health, the state of the planet – and more.
Ants. A flashback. I am in Poland. The city of Gdansk. On my plate, a dish from tonight’s tasting menu at this “orthodox Polish” restaurant – “we have eliminated all foreign produce from the kitchen, including spices,” the maître d’ explains – are bits and bites of three mushrooms foraged from a nearby pine forest: a slippery jack, a birch bolete and a velvet bolete. Fat rendered from the skin of a duck has been involved in the prep of the ’shrooms. Plus a drop of pine oil on each. And smoking over an open fire.
I look at the tiny black things, also on my plate. And yes, so they are, clearly identifiable. Ants. Which, I am told, and discover for myself on tasting, have an incredibly intense flavour. “They add an acidity and fruitiness.” True.
It is my first taste of ants. Because goodness knows, most of us have probably eaten a few dozen inadvertently. At picnics. In the kitchen. But not foraged and prepared by a celebrated young chef, as seasoning.
And yes, I am aware that “the traditional consumption of edible insects is common in one third of the world’s population, mostly in Latin America, Africa and Asia”, to quote from this National Library of Medicine abstract. I’ve heard, too, going back through the years, from many friends – who have usually tried them just once – that flying ants, fried or roasted over a fire, are creamy and delectable. Something I cannot personally vouch for. Because isn’t it odd, when you think about it, that certain creepy-crawlies are alien to some of us who will, nevertheless, salivate over oysters, relish mussels and garlic-drenched snails and crave soft-shelled crabs. Familiar. Desirable by association. But none of which I will describe as I luridly might, not wanting to risk ruining our – your or my – appetite for them.
Back to those ants. The concept of being served them as part of a “fine dining” experience did not come as a surprise. If you’re a fan of Chef René Redzepi, you will know he put Nordic food on the map with his Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. It was voted World’s Best for the first time in 2010; most recently, as Noma 2.0, at a new location and with a tweaked concept, in 2021.
Back in 2008 Redzepi co-founded the Nordic Food Lab, now merged into the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science. You may have watched, as I did, the film the lab made called Bugs: will eating insects save our planet? See a link to the trailer here. In it, the film team hop around a world of bug eaters, with the aim of ultimately transforming said bugs into delectable dishes. Because even if saving the planet is the big-picture objection, those of us who can, want to eat for pleasure; not penance.
The Bugs movie had introduced me to the idea of ants as a condiment before I was served these Polish ants: local and seasonal, no doubt. Tasting them, I thought, Yes! These work! And pictured bottled dried ants in spice racks. Alongside the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. The garlic flakes. The designer sea salt options.
That was in 2016. I am still waiting. I have no doubt their time will come.
The ant flashback surfaces when I am speaking to Durban-based food scientist, Eric Amonsou, on the eve of his inauguration as a full professor in the Durban University of Technology faculty of applied sciences. “Insects are one of the superfoods. Rich in protein. Insect cultivation uses a fraction of the land, energy and water required for traditional farming and has a significantly lower carbon footprint. I saw mopane worms for sale, and other insects, at a market in Thohoyandou while on a visit to the University of Venda. There’s a lot going on in Europe with insect research. Protein powders for sports nutrition and flour, made from crickets, for instance.”
Eating insects for those who are unaccustomed can be a challenge, he is the first to concede. “In parts of Benin (where he’s from) people eat insects. Not in my village and I haven’t myself.
“But there is a lot of scope for research and development here in South Africa. Insects can be easy to farm in an environmentally friendly way in cages. I met possible collaborators in France. But I am not aware that our government is doing anything to facilitate or promote this.”
Food science may not, at first glance, be the “sexy” side of cuisine. But it is cutting edge territory. Has to be when you look at the figures. Current world population 7.9 billion. Projected 2030 figure 8.5 billion people. Projected 2050 figure 9.9 billion. Climate change, pollution, devastation. I don’t need to tell you. Just turn on the news any day. Or right now, tune in to COP26, currently happening in Glasgow.
There are multiple solutions, alternatives, that need to be and can be explored, Amonsou says. “The way we produce our cattle, our livestock for food – full of antibodies, pesticides, not to mention the carbon footprint. It’s a time bomb.”
Then there is his personal passion.
“I strongly believe we can leverage traditional crops. To combat malnutrition, hunger, poverty. To achieve sustainability goals. To protect the environment. To promote good health.”
In a sense he’s talking, from a scientist’s matter-of-fact perspective, the same language as the Slow Food movement advocates (good, clean, fair food; “local” food and traditions; interest in the what and where from? of food; how our food choices affect the wider world). And he is also speaking the language of many of this country’s – and the world’s – top chefs and foodies. People we write about on this TGIFood platform; committed to fresh, local, foraging, seasonal, traditional, heirloom, flavour. Biodiversity. Good produce. Good health.
In his lab he and his team solve problems. For example, when Unilever had complaints about a soup, they brought the complaints and the soup to his lab. The starch component causing the problem was identified. It was then tweaked. Everyone leaves happy.
But his main passion, which I knew before I went to the Durban DUT campus to speak with him for this story, having attended a talk he gave a couple of years ago, is “the amazing power of indigenous African crops” for a society faced with “multiple challenges including climate change, obesity, lifestyle diseases such as heart diseases and diabetes, and food insecurity”.
“Indigenous African crops represent a treasure of nutrients and health-promoting compounds,” he will tell you. With some of the innovative work being done, “there is potential for job creation and many commercially viable products”.
Currently, he points out, vast quantities of just five main crops are being produced, not only in this country but globally. Rice, potatoes, maize (corn), wheat and soya beans.
What should we instead be growing? “Legumes (including bambara grandos – jugo bean – sometimes called a ‘complete food’, a groundnut that is a good source of protein and is drought tolerant), cereal, roots, tubers, leafy vegetables. Crops with climate resilience, which can grow well in both a wet environment and that support dry conditions.
“Crops that are a good source of micronutrients: things like vitamins, zinc, iron, minerals. So, crops that go beyond basic nutrition; that contribute to antioxidant activity; that support gut microbes; that promote good health.” And that don’t lose all their benefits when processed. “Like refined wheat flour. There is no fibre, no goodness left after processing. It’s a huge problem, especially in the developing world.”
Amonsou, as mentioned, is from the Republic of Benin, the French-speaking West African nation sandwiched between (smaller) Togo and (vast) Nigeria, on the Gulf of Guinea. A BBC article calls it one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Also one of the world’s poorest countries.
He grew up in the inland city of Savè where his father, advised by friends that science and speaking English were the high road to success, steered his bright young son in that direction. After graduating high school with his O and A levels, Amonsou applied, and after diligently doing a crash course in English, was accepted at Nigeria’s top-tier University of Ibadan to do his BSc Honours in agricultural engineering. An internship, then a research position, followed at the Benin National Institute of Agricultural Research where his interest in food science was piqued.
An international collaboration working on indigenous-to-Africa cowpeas, one of the most ancient human food sources, earned him a scholarship to the University of Ghana, where he got his Masters of Philosophy in food science. His (food science) PhD is from the University of Pretoria, which he followed with post-doc work there and then in the human nutrition department at UKZN, Pietermaritzburg. He joined DUT in 2013 and soon thereafter set up their Food Science and Technology research division.
The amadumbe is a current key focus for Amonsou. And as an aside, let me ask you: when did you last eat an amadumbe? Because I hadn’t for ages before seeking them out for this story, discovering them quite difficult to find. Then roasting them. And noting, while not prepossessing to look at, how remarkably tasty they are. Simply cooked then peeled, sprinkled with a dash of Oryx desert salt and drizzled with olive oil. A satisfying-to-bite-into moist starchiness that, having spoken with the prof, I now know is good reason to eat them. See the amadumbe on the Slow Food ark of taste here.
It is a much more versatile veggie than I ever would have imagined. A former Masters student who worked with Amonsou is using the amadumbe to create “plastic” use-then-eat containers, where something called nanocrystal, that is in their makeup, is involved. He has patents pending on two health drinks; one with amadumbe and beetroot. And an amadumbe gel cereal will soon be available on the DUT campus.
This all stemming from research into the veggie, which he advised me to eat instead of potato, for health reasons, as the mucilage (I am loath to say “slime” but let’s get over that, given it’s so good for the gut) in the amadumbe maintains after “processing”, as in baking or boiling, so the starch is slow-release. No insulin spike.
Enough about amadumbe. If you have any questions, you can ask him yourself on his health education blog, Nutrifid.
When I Google the University of Copenhagen to see what, in bug research, their food science department is doing these days, I find a delightful study featuring mealworms and grasshoppers, which we’re told are both EU-approved production insects. A quote from associate professor, Michael Bom Frøst, advises us that, “Our eating habits must shift drastically if we hope to achieve a 70% reduction of our impact on the climate by 2030, as the government has promised. But we can’t get people to eat in a more climate-friendly manner if they don’t like the food. We’re committed to developing the foods of tomorrow, foods that are both climate-friendly and tasty.” To this end, Danish children have rolled and eaten their own mealworm and grasshopper fortified oatmeal balls. We’re told the experiment demonstrates that some insects have a greater “yuck” factor than others. That mealworms might be our best bet for an insect-protein rich dietary future. Okay.
One of Amonsou’s challenges, he shared when we spoke, is getting resources to make innovations from his lab’s research viable. For instance, he too finds amadumbe hard to come by. “Private investors won’t support products until we have a supply of the raw materials. The crops. We truly need government involvement to make farming attractive and an inclusive business model to produce the best varietals.”
My mind goes back to those ants. The Polish ants. I wonder if Amonsou would consider, post-amadumbe, research into local ants. Maybe that is something to put on the table. DM/TGIFood
The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.