Insects are a common snack food in Cambodia, but not one often associated with expats. Ellie Dyer meets and photographs two enterprising Frenchmen who are breaking the mould to create a unique range of cricket-laden creations.
Emerging from the depths of the Khmer Iron Cricket kitchen, Gérard Thévenet cradles a clear plastic box. Gently peeling back the lid, a brace of grey-brown strands is contained inside. “Noodles of cricket!” he cries, as a broad smile breaks across his face.
Inside the compact room, a Willy Wonka-style insect experiment is underway. Bowls full of flour, sugar and dehydrated crickets lie on a central table, as dough is churned, flattened and cut to create 200 bags of insect-laden cookies a day.
Mounds of spiced crickets are baked in industrial ovens, along with racks of the cinnamon, durian, coconut and coffee flavoured biscuits, dotted with raisin-like chunks of insect.
“The challenge is the attractive part of it,” says 58-year-old Thévenet, a former Phnom Penh restaurateur who has also created cricket “powder” that can be mixed with dishes to produce protein-rich meals.
Set off a quiet seafront road in the sleepy town of Kep, the Khmer Iron Cricket enterprise, which is currently selling packaged cookies and insects, is the brainchild of travel operator Thévenet and 51-year-old businessman Philippe Lenain, another long-term expat.
“I am the more crazy of the two,” jokes Thévenet, who has been living in Cambodia since 1994. “We tasted [crickets] a long time ago, and in the world we have seven billion people.”
With the global population set to soar to 9 billion by 2030, many — including the United Nations — believe that critters could help counter world nutrition insecurity, while providing a valuable dietary stream for humans and animals alike.
“We are already seeing producers creating animal feed from insects and research. And development is occurring around the world in order to incorporate insects into menus and processed foods,” stated Afton Halloran, a consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Edible Insects Programme, earlier this year.
In total around 1,900 species of creepy crawlies, including ants, beetles, locusts and bees, are now consumed by humans in Asia, Africa and Latin America, yet many in the West remain unaware of their unique culinary charms.
“There’s a huge potential that has essentially not been tapped yet,” explains Eva Muller, director of FAO’s Forest Economics, Policy and Products Division.
It’s such potential that Lenain and Thévenet may well benefit from, as tourists begin snapping up packets of cricket cookies and herb-dried insects to take home as a memento of their Cambodian travels.
But processing is only one side of the tale. The almost deafening hum of chirping crickets hints at the scale of the Khmer Iron Cricket breeding enterprise, which produced its first generation for commercial sale in October and is already much larger than the average local insect farm.
In the business’ compact garden, thousands of small insects hop out of egg box towers housed in deep concrete basins and tubs formed out of blue plastic sheeting that are stacked three-storeys high.
“It gives them privacy and shade,” says Lenain, gazing over basin after basin of scurrying insects, which lay their eggs in bowls of damp coconut fibre and rice husk.
The vegetarian crickets are fed on marrow and other vegetables during their six-week life cycle, before being drowned in hot water and turned into culinary creations.
The farm is capable of breeding two million crickets per month, but the endeavour is not without its challenges — especially for two Europeans who had no previous experience of insect breeding until they bought a starter supply from a local trader.
“When we first started this, everybody was impressed that we were doing seven kilos [of crickets] per square metre,” says Lenain. “We thought we were very gifted. But then the next generation, the next one, the next one, it went down to one kilo per square metre and then it was ridiculous, and the reason was predators.”
Rats and birds are drawn to the veritable insect supermarket, but are now being controlled thanks to the nets that protect the basins from attack, creating a steady supply for the kitchen.
And as the businessmen settle down with a cup of strong coffee and a plate piled high with cricket cookies, which are sweet and crunchy with an undercurrent of distinctive, nutty cricket flavour, it becomes clear that they have big ambitions.
Surprised by demand from the tourist market — they had initially planned to target Cambodian consumers — the team is considering potential exports and the possibility of setting up a network of local insect farmers to help increase production in the future.
“It’s a very, very interesting job. It’s exciting and full of difficulties for which we have to find solutions,” says Lenain, who is also keeping the bigger picture in mind.
“But I know that we are doing something that is going in the right direction… We provide protein without much collateral damage to the environment. It has higher nutritional content, and this is satisfying.”