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Stinging Sensation: Why a GI tag for the red weaver ant chutney from Mayurbhanj, Odisha, could be an answer to food security

Kai chutney is celebrated among tribal communities not just for its fiery taste but also for its medicinal properties.

Crunchy Delight: Kai chutney (Courtesy: Srishti Sensarma)

By: Srishti Sensarma

The first time I ate an insect was on a school trip to the Terai region in Uttarakhand when I was in sixth grade at New Delhi’s Mirambika – Free Progress School. Our class teacher Baren Raol, a native of Odisha, had asked us all to gather around an ant hill and told us to do something that seemed fascinating to us 12-year-olds – take a few ants, crush and eat them!

I still remember the crunch of it – the initial sourness, due to the formic acid, followed by a slight bitter undertone and finally, salty. While most of my classmates ran away at the thought of eating insects, I was enchanted by the idea of how nature gave us endless possibilities of sustenance.

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While my experiences are numbered, using insects in everyday cooking, especially red weaver ants, is extremely popular in the tri-state area of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. So much so, Odisha’s district of Mayurbhanj is set to register their famous Kai (red ant) chutney for the Geographical Indicator (GI) tag where it will be joining its contemporaries such as Kashmiri saffron, Bengali gobindobhog rice and Darjeeling tea.

The Kai chutney is celebrated among the tribal communities of the region, not just for its fiery flavour but also for its medicinal properties wherein it has helped soothe coughs, common colds, jaundice and even issues with eyesight. These red ants are also rich in protein, vitamin B-12 and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, sodium and as many as 18 amino acids. It has also been proven to boost immunity, helping those who make a soup of the ants to gain back their strength.

Red hot: The red weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) is considered a delicacy among tribals in Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In order to collect and process the ants, the hunter has to gather the weaver ants from their nest colonies. These nests are made using leaves on trees and attached using silk from the larvae. Moreover, these nests hold onto their own through strong winds and heavy rain. In season, the ants are in abundance, and once collected, the ants and their eggs are eaten with salt and lots of chillies. In order to make it appropriate for mainstream manufacturing, the Ministry of Aayush will have to set safeguard measures and guidelines to standardise protocols for hygiene and sanitisation. The effort towards regulating the production of chutney will hopefully work towards the de-stigmatisation and make public perception kinder towards tribal cuisine.

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Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) has been observed by millions of people from across the globe since the beginning of time. While in Latin America, there’s escamole (insect caviar) in Mexico and hormiga culona (female leafcutter ants) in Colombia, enjoyed as significant sources of fat and protein, in Ghana, fried palm weevil larvae, known as akokono and Uganda’s nswaa (insect dish) are delicacies. Of course, Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, famous for its fried crickets, silk worms, cockroaches and locusts, have insects as a part of their extensive street food.

Several proponents of entomophagy and food researchers have claimed that this might be the answer to the global food security concerns. One of the biggest challenges of our current food system is the ever-increasing demand for meat, which in and of itself has an environmentally damaging production process. The gradual shift to insect farming, which will take some pressure off animal husbandry, will produce less amounts of greenhouse gases and ammonia, it will need less land and it will need much less water. Additionally, a third of all agricultural produce in the world is wasted, which can be used for insect farming instead, reducing food waste significantly.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in their report ‘Edible Insects’ (2013), in fact urged people all over to consider the consumption of insects, saying that it may be the answer to food insecurity and global malnutrition.\

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While most people show a general aversion to insects, it might be worth thinking about how lobsters, prawns and crabs – while these are crustaceans – are considered the insects of the sea (belonging to the same family of arthropod) and that secretions from bees (honey), has been an essential part of our diet since antiquity and even offered to the gods. The introduction of a new wave of food will always be met with restraint, however one must keep in mind that these changes are products of our current times and challenges, presenting itself to be an alternative to a very serious issue.

Srishti is currently a candidate for MA Food Studies at New York University where she is concentrating on food and agricultural policies. She recently graduated from Miranda House with a degree in BA (Hons) Philosophy and is a keen observer of people, cultures and societies at the intersection of market growth and government policies.

First published on: 08-07-2022 at 07:50:26 pm
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