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Biting the bug: Insect restaurant opening in Tokyo to offer nutrient-rich cricket ramen

Yuta Shinohara is seen with a dish of karaage fried chicken dusted with crickets, in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 25, 2019. (Mainichi/Yuichi Nishigori)

TOKYO -- A new restaurant focusing on insect cuisine is set to open in spring 2020 in central Tokyo. The young entrepreneur behind the new eatery says he "wants to increase the chances of people being able to learn of the appeals of using insects as ingredients; that they're actually delicious and high in nutrients."

The restaurant "Antcicada" opening in the Bakurocho neighborhood of Nihonbashi in Tokyo's Chuo Ward is an initiative by Yuta Shinohara, 25, a resident of Koto Ward who has been involved in activism to normalize insect consumption since his school days, and who also recently started up a management firm for the eatery.

The shop's centerpiece is its cricket ramen, which was first introduced to the world in September 2015. Developed jointly with the Nagi Spirits Co., which operates ramen shops mainly in the capital's Shinjuku area, each bowl of the ramen soup noodles uses about 100 crickets to make its broth. The soup base is created with "cricket soy sauce," which is a mixture of the insects with malted rice that is fermented and aged. The oil and the noodles also use dried crickets.

The crickets themselves are cultivated by a venture developed by Tokushima University, in the city of the same name on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. They are fed with grains, giving them a fragrant and sweet taste. A bowl of the ramen is very much a concentration of the cricket's culinary appeals.

For evening service, the restaurant is preparing a course menu. In addition to insect dishes, it will also use exterminated invasive alien species, and the parts of animals that are ordinarily discarded when cooking meat. The name of the business is a fusion of the words ant and cicada.

Explaining his philosophy, Shinohara said, "I want us to be a society that recognizes the beauty of living creatures. Whether it's insects or invasive species, they all have lives. I approach them simply as ingredients."

Shinohara grew up in the suburban Tokyo city of Hachioji, at the foot of Mount Takao. From as far back as he can remember, he has been caught up in the joys of catching and eating insects. "Even if they're from the same species, the taste from one creature to the next can be different. There's no insect which is the same. Every time was like a series of discoveries for me, and I felt at one and connected with nature," he said.

But he worried that his friends and family would be disgusted by his behavior, so he kept it a secret from even his parents.

Shinohara was inspired to become an activist when he was in his first year at Tokyo's Keio University in May 2013, after the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization released a report recommending the consumption of insects as one way to combat worldwide population increases and global warming. It highlighted that insects were a good source of protein, vitamins, fibers and other nutrients, and that they could be raised more efficiently and environmentally than livestock such as pigs and cows.

In January 2014, Shinohara revealed his insect-eating habit on Facebook. The response from those around him was harsh, with some telling him what he does makes them feel gross, and other friends even distancing themselves from him. But conversely, some people he knew came forward to tell him they were interested in it, and that they wanted him to tell them more about it. Looking back on it, Shinohara said it made him happy, and encouraged him to feel like he had to keep putting out his message.

After that, he started running a cooking workshop using insects. Thanks to his active efforts for the cause on social media, he slowly got messages from restaurants expressing their interest in his work. With the help of friends, including cooks, brewers, farmers and writers, he set up his own company in November 2019.

Shinohara is now doing research into creating dishes that can expand the business into catering and limited-edition products. Until Jan. 8, he is raising funds online for the restaurant's opening. Those who donate are eligible for perks including tickets for meals at the eatery, bottles of cricket soy sauce and dressing, as well as the opportunity to attend a barbecue in a rustic location, which is set to be held in the spring.

(Japanese original by Yuichi Nishigori, Nagano Bureau)

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