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The Time I Ate Ant Chutney, Fried Spiders And Silkworms… And Was Floored!

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By Karnika Bahuguna:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

As a child, I was raised a vegetarian. Later in life, after shifting to various cities across India for pursuing higher studies and work, I had to step out of the hard-core vegetarian comfort zone and venture into unknown and uncharted territories for relishing my taste buds.

I soon realised that I liked my butter chicken and machher jhol and started considering myself an adventurous foodie until I was sent to cover an assignment on the Indigenous Terra Madre—a five-day conference on indigenous food in Shillong, Meghalaya.

During the conference, I went to attend one of the taste workshops. There were quite a few such workshops which experimented with various kinds of honey, wild edibles and fermented food.

I chose to participate in the insect-tasting workshop.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1,900 species of insects have been identified as human food.

Various studies and traditional wisdom of different communities across the world show that entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, is beneficial for health, the environment and livelihood.

So, here I was ready to pop in some insects. The tasting started with weaver ant chutney served with local bread made with pounded rice called Putharo.

Weaver ant chutney served with bread prepared from pounded rice.

As seen in the picture, we were served just a drop of the chutney since the women, who had gone to collect these ants, were badly bitten and quit their collection process midway. So, there was lesser chutney for everyone to taste.

Weaver ants are primarily found in Africa, parts of central India and the Western Ghats. A tribe known as Siddis found in the Western Ghats uses them to make chutney. It is eaten when one is suffering from cold, cough, joint pain and as part of post-delivery nutrition for new mothers.

The chutney was prepared with coconut, salt, cumin and sesame seeds and garlic. Ant and larvae are mixed with salt and cooked. The ants add a sour taste to the chutney while the other ingredients give it the hotness.

I took one bite and was floored. The chutney was delicious and I wanted to taste more.

Riverbed beetle served with rice.

After this delicacy, we were served a local food item from Arunachal Pradesh. In the preparation, riverbed beetle crushed with onions, garlic, chilli and salt was served with rice.

The beetle, which has a strong taste and aroma, is used mainly as a flavouring agent. The locals eat it in winter, as it helps to ease nasal congestion. It tasted crunchy and slightly fibrous. It left a strong aftertaste in my mouth for a long time after just one bite. However, it is difficult to explain the taste and aroma of beetle. It is somewhat close to dried ginger.

According to the FAO, insects are healthy and nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish. Many insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc.

Eri Silkworms taste somewhat similar to prawns.

So, besides eating healthy, I was also eating something which is sustainable for the environment. With this feeling in my mind, I tasted Eri Silkworms.

Although, they did not look appetizing, the taste was similar to fried prawns.

Now, besides owning an Eri Silk bag, I also know what the worm looks and tastes like.

The next plate was the king of all dishes tasted so far. It consisted of carpenter’s worm. As it is the costliest of worms, it is also called the saffron of worms.

These worms cost around Rs 10,000 per kg. Besides this, there were fried edible spiders and honey bees. Although, I did not taste the latter two things, I ate carpenter’s worm. They tasted crunchier with a distinct aroma.

Carpenter worm, honey bee and edible spider with side salad.

Insect rearing is not necessarily a land-based activity and does not require land clearing to expand production. Also, the ammonia emissions associated with insect rearing are far lower than those linked to conventional livestock.

As they are cold-blooded, insects are efficient at converting feed into protein. Plus, they can be fed on organic waste streams. Harvesting them is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers entry even to the poorest sections of the society.

By the end of the tasting workshop, I was left with two feelings. One was a sense of achievement for being adventurous with food and the other was a strong aroma in my mouth which did not subside for hours.

Some of my fellow participants started feeling ill after a while. Some of them went to the first aid unit while others rushed to washrooms to throw up.

Maybe, the insects did not like them. However, after taking anti-allergic medicines, most of them were up and running in no time to attend the next taste workshop.

I was still trying to figure out if the itch in my throat was because of those creepy-crawly things I had eaten or just a perception.

Photos by Karnika Bahuguna.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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