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Published on November 14th, 2008 | by Gavin Hudson

11

Silkworms: an Environmentally Friendly Delicacy?

Boiled silk worms, peondegiAccording to legend, 5,000 years ago Chinese Empress Xi Ling-Shi discovered silk when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot cup of tea. She unraveled the strange cocoon and, wrapping the thread around her finger, soon realized what an exquisite cloth it would make. Thus the history of one of the world’s most coveted fabrics began.

If this is true, the silkworm that haplessly fell into the empress’ cup on that fateful day met a fate very similar to that of modern day silkworms. When they exit the cocoon after metamorphosis, silkmoths must bore a hole through the cocoon wall, which ruins the precious thread. Therefore, silk factories drop the cocoons in hot water before the moth can leave. This unravels the thread well, but it boils down to bad news for the silkworms.

Still, it’s the fate of almost every silkworm in the world today. Due to thousands of years of selective breeding, the silkworms we know today are no longer suited to survive in the wild. The entire species’ population exists only in silk factories and in the cardboard boxes of school children. So, except for the fortunate few 3rd-grade bookworms, virtually every silkworm will meet the cooking pot. That raises the question: what do you do with so many boiled silkworms?

This is food week on EcoWorldly, and I think you can tell where I’m going. In many silk-producing countries, there’s a very simple answer. Eat the worm.

When I was a kid, I had my own box of long, silvery silkworms. I’d sometimes reach into the box to run my finger over one of them. The feeling of their velvety, pulpous skin remains with me to this day as a palpable memory of childhood. Those memories came racing back to me when I ate my first silkworm one day this year, standing by the tourist entrance to an ancient palace in Seoul, South Korea.

In China and Vietnam, silkworms are fried; in Korea, silkworms (peondegi), are seasoned and boiled. Large cauldrons of boiling, brown silkworm pupae are not an uncommon sight on streets and in outdoor markets in South Korea. The odor of the steam rising from one of these pots is so distinctive that if you ever smell it, I guarantee you’ll never forget it. A paper cup full of peondegi is around a dollar, making silkworms an easy, cheap snack. And, even though the younger generations are sometimes shy about admitting it to foreigners, boiled silkworms are nevertheless a popular snack for all ages.

Silkworms have dropped (or crawled) their way into my diet as well. Boiled silkworms have a pungent, almost bitter smell and a similar taste. When you bite down on them (brace yourself if you have a delicate stomach and an unfamiliarity with eating insects), they pop juicily in your mouth. An acquired taste? Yes. It took me trying to impress my Korean date to want to taste them a second time. But after the initial hurdle that accompanies wildly unfamiliar cuisines, I’ve begun to enjoy eating silkworms.

Aside from their debatable qualities as a “delicacy,” there are two other, environmentally-conscious motivations for eating silkworms. Firstly, there’s the “waste not, want not” reasoning behind eating silkworms after they’ve produced the silk. This logic presumes that if they weren’t eaten, they would become a waste product. The second reason touches on health and climate change. Simply put, insects don’t have the large carbon footprint of cows, pigs, and chickens. Moreover, many insects (silkworms included) have been found to be a rich source of protein, fiber, and some vitamins and minerals. They’ve even been eyed as an option for a protein-rich space food for astronauts.

Silkworms are also one of the only two widely domesticated insects (the other is the bee). This might just make silkworms the healthiest and most environmentally benign domesticated food animal in the world. And while silkworms may not make it to the top of the menu in Europe or North America (which admittedly have their own strange foods), it does give the adventurous gourmand something to chew on.

With the silk wrapped around her finger and the insect in her tea, I wonder if Empress Xi Ling-Shi could have guessed what a strange delicacy had fallen into her cup!

Image credit: Andrew Currie via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license




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About the Author

Gavin blogs from Zurich, Switzerland. His day job is Digital Media Communications Manager for ABB. Previously, he lived and worked in South Korea, blogging, editing and freelance writing for Green Options and PV Magazine. Gavin's favorite environmental work has included: co-founding the grassroots Nature Conservation Club at about age 8; interning for the Jane Goodall Insitute's Roots & Shoots (R&S) program; representing R&S at the World Social Forum VI in Caracas, Venezuela; volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito; being a research assistant for a CAL lab studying climate change in Colorado; bicycling lots.



  • http://ecopreneurist.com mcmilker

    While eating silk worms already intended for disposal is certainly the eco choice, I’d prefer to see silkworms raised more humanely. The growing peace silk industry is working toward growing silk worms in just such a manner. Rather than dropping the cocoons in boiling water they are unraveled and the silk worm is kept alive to reproduce.

    You can grow your own peace silk or purchase at

    http://www.aurorasilk.com/raisesilk/index.shtml

  • http://sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    My mother’s made two extended trips to South Korea, and said this was the one element of Korean cuisine she just couldn’t do…

  • http://greenoptions.com/author/gavinhudson Gavin Hudson

    @MC: Thank you for the excellent link and suggestion!

    @Jeff: It’s definitely an acquired taste. :)

  • Deepti

    I like MC’s two cents. Gavin, EW! I remember seeing the picture of your facial expressions right after you ate a worm. You did not look happy. I’m surprised you tried it again and even more surprised that you have acquired a taste for them. But not surprised that you tried it a second time in an attempt to impress a girl. hehe. Miss you. You are far more adventurous than I. I will leave the bug-eating to you.

  • http://boksiora.googlepages.com/home2?848260055 web

    om nom nom nom nom

    oh, come on, someone was gonna say it, now it’s out of the way.

  • pete

    Sorry but what is the eco-suggestion here? if they already eat the silk-pupae as you say and they are a popular snack, are they throwing any away? (no). it seems silly to try and stimulate demand for silk worms as a low impact food. Being one trophic level above plants, like cows and sheep won´t they be just as bad?

    Interesting silk worm facts but hardly useful.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.thompson.58173000 Ian Thompson

      Less space, less water, less green house gas emission, mulberry leaves, their food source are a perennial crop and does not cause as much soil degradation as the practice of growing corn for feed.

  • http://hotmail alice

    hey does it taste good…like really good??????? it looks yackkyy 2 me…????

  • shimmmm

    what. they taste good LOL
    everyone just seems to think it’s nasty because they actually know what it is and are disgusted by how they’re presented…..seriously, if you just close your eyes without no idea of what it is, it’s pretty damn tasty.

  • http://cardboardgiftboxes.org/ black cardboard gift boxes

    Dude.. I am not much into reading, but somehow I got to read several articles on your blog. Its amazing how interesting it is for me to check out you very often.

  • Pingback: Day 79: Should We Consider Eating Worms? « BrainCaviar

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