Angelina Jolie says her sons eat them “like Doritos,” locals find them a tasty snack, but could the humble cricket ever be commonplace in a westerner’s shopping basket?
New company Khmer Iron Cricket thinks so, and with a range of high-protein delicacies including cookies and baked spicy dehydrated crickets, is hoping to tempt the fussiest palates while, in the long term, providing a sustainable source of protein to malnourished Cambodian children.
Having launched in Kep and Phnom Penh a month ago, long-term French expats and friends Gérard Thévenet and Philippe Lenain are now selling their cricket-based products in Temple Town at outlets including Victoria Angkor Resort and Spa, Bopha Angkor Hotel and Cassia restaurant.
“At the moment we already have 25 points of sale in Siem Reap,” Lenain says. “We sell through hotels and souvenir shops. My partner Gérard has a travel agency here so we are using that for support.”
Thévenet and Lenain, based in Kep, had been living in Cambodia for several years when Thévenet came up with the idea to start a cricket farm.
The pair discovered that crickets were not only plentiful, but raising them was cost effective and most importantly they were a great source of protein, containing 59 per cent. Coming from a family of farmers, Thévenet recognised that Cambodia was the perfect environment for raising crickets, and being a chef he was also curious to explore the insect’s nutritional benefits.
Khmer Iron Cricket sells spicy dehydrated crickets that have been baked for 14 hours with garlic and spices, and power protein cookies containing whole crickets and flavoured with coffee, coconut, cinnamon or durian.
Packaged in neat little boxes with transparent lids, the cool branding suggests something that wouldn’t look out of place in the world food section of Selfridges Food Hall. The slogan, ‘powerfully delicious!’is derived from the Khmer term for this type of cricket – iron cricket.
“When we interviewed some Khmer people they had the idea that this cricket makes you strong,” Lenain explains.
“We also sell powder made from ground crickets and down the road I’d like to use this as a nutritional compliment, to mix with food. That’s our main aim – to sell it to feed malnourished children.
“I have contacted many NGOs but at the moment we’re still at the stage where we must get the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs. I have a good contact with the World Food Program; this is really at the top of the chain, because they have programs in Cambodia which are really addressing malnutrition.”
He adds that the tourist interest in his cricket products was accidental.
“We didn’t have the tourist angle in our minds at all, but in Kep there are a few tourists, hotels and restaurants. Some people who had tried them said their clients really liked them, and wanted more.”
But while people are evidently going crazy for crickets, being new to the business, it took Lenain and Thévenet nearly a year of trial and error before successfully delivering the product.
Now about one and a half million crickets are kept in 300 square metre layers of boxes down at the farm. They are fed on a diet of vegetables including pumpkin and eggplant, and harvested every six weeks. After four weeks, bowls of coconut fibre and rice husk are placed in their ‘living quarters’ to attract the females, who lay their eggs once a day.
The crickets are cooked according to recipes devised by Thévenet, who used to own La Taverne restaurant in Phnom Penh.
“Some we do with spices, some are simply dehydrated, without flavour – plain,” says Lenain. “They are added to the cookies, or they are turned into powder. The taste of the cricket is not very powerful, maybe a bit similar to a chestnut.”
In the future, Khmer Iron Cricket plans to introduce some new products and also launch abroad.
“We are working on a protein bar for sportsmen, on protein pastas and many more delicacies,” Lenain says. “We’re discussing with companies to represent us in France, in the USA and in China. It's still early days, but we're ready to expand.”
“Everybody eats insects – except us, except the western world.. We are the exceptions.”
He adds that the protein content of these little critters is astonishingly high.
“Beef is at 28 per cent, chicken would be 20, maybe 25,” he says. “Fish is only ten or 13. So 59 per cent is very, very high. The good thing about it is that I read to get one gram of protein from crickets, it takes forty times less food than for cattle.”