Cooking beetles, Majuli style

Beetle fry, anyone? A ‘Pestaurant’ in the remote and rapidly-shrinking Majuli, the world’s largest river island in North-East India, has cooked up a unique method to prevent pests from attacking crops in the region – eating them before they devour the crops. With insect farming creeping into discussions on sustainable food systems across the globe, there is untapped potential of insect-eating for pest control that is now being explored in this region of Assam. The seemingly innocuous white grub beetle (Lepidiota mansueta) which feasts on potato, colocasia, green gram and a range of crops in Majuli is up for grabs in fried and roasted forms in the soon-to-be inaugurated outlets of the pest-restaurant ‘Pestaurant’, besides other pestilent but protein-rich insects such as field crickets and mole crickets.

The origin of the concept eatery lies in research that not only detected, reported and nutritionally-profiled the beetle endemic to Majuli, but also mobilized indigenous communities to consider the pest as food. The research and extension activities were carried out as part of the All India Network Project on Soil Arthropods Pests (AINPSAP) funded by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. “We will officially launch the outlets in April this year in Majuli. We are trying to link up tourism to entomophagy and showcase how insect-eating can be sustainable and help deal with pests,” said Badal Bhattacharyya of the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) and the principal investigator of the project. The multiple award winning concept was recently honored with the HK Jain – Central Agricultural University (CAU) Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research for Bhattacharyya.

The island, with a population of over 1, 60,000 has a crop area spreading across 300 square kilometers. Up to 35 to 40 per cent of the island has been attacked by this pest. The beetle can be regarded as a rare species because it spends its entire life cycle under the ground, except for a short period during which adults emerge from the ground for mating, which is why the use of insecticides does not offer a way out. They make an appearance during dusk for about two to three weeks, during the pre-monsoon season. The team took advantage of this unusual emergence behavior of beetles. Instead of hunting for the grubs, if they could eradicate the adult beetles when they emerged, then they could nip the problem in the bud. So, in 2012, as many as 400 farmers – in groups of ten, were coached to collect and destroy the insects.

Bhattacharyya highlighted that this Endeavour will lead to a huge economic benefit – to the tune of approximately Rupees three cores to the farmers of 10 white grub-endemic villages around the site of execution during 2018-19. From 2010 to April 2018, a total of 9, 00,000 beetles have been collected, informed E. Bidyarani, a junior research fellow associated with the project. The fact that local tribal people relished the cooked/ fried adult beetles as protein-rich food, opened up a new avenue for research on its nutritive/nutraceutical value. Researchers found the adult beetle had 76.83 per cent protein content, 10.93 per cent carbohydrate content, 5.15 per cent fiber and 4.10 per cent fat, and is also completely free of toxins.

“Processing, refinement and value addition to roasted and fried beetles not only became popular among the ethnic tribes but also among the other communities of Majuli. Initially, many locals were hesitant to consume the beetle but we demonstrated by cooking the beetle with basic ingredients as to how easy it was to whip up a tasty dish,” said Khanin Pathak, a junior scientist associated with the project. In fact, Bhattacharyya himself has donned the chef’s hat several times to popularize the cuisine with the slogan “Eat it before it eats your crops.” Roasted beetle fry with tomato, plainly roasted beetle and beetle curry soon became a hit not only among locals but also with tourists, leading to the formation of a small eatery backed by the AAU in Kuli-Chapori village. Bhattacharyya also assures that the initiative is sustainable. “We can’t kill all the beetles. A significant percentage will thrive and will regenerate so the concept will be sustainable. The outlets will stay open only during the time the beetles emerge and are available for trapping,” he added.

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