Tiny delicacies ... crickets stir-fried with blackbean sauce and chilli. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Beautiful, crunchy, ''seafoody'' and perfect for stir-fry. This is how acclaimed chef Kylie Kwong describes the crickets she'll be cooking at her restaurant Billy Kwong's annual Australian-Chinese New Year feast.
"It's amazing when you eat them, there's a really fresh crunch. For me, they taste like a combination of dried shrimp, dried scallops and dried eschallots," she says.
The sold-out dinner - which takes its inspiration from the Cantonese saying that ''anything that walks, swims, crawls or flies with its back to heaven is edible'' - is the next frontier in the restaurant's commitment to sustainable cuisine.
Crunchy and fresh ... Kylie Kwong's Australian-Chinese New Year banquet focuses on sustainable food like edible insects and native ingredients. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
With Lunar New Year celebrations kicking off around the world this weekend , Billy Kwong is among the scores of Chinese restaurants gearing up for what they say is their busiest trading period of the year.
Australian Chinese Restaurateurs Association spokeswoman Jessie Xiao says extended holidays in countries such as China, Taiwan and Singapore bring large numbers of Asian visitors to Australia during the Lunar New Year, which is a crucial shot-in-the-arm for Chinese restaurants during a normally quiet period.
"[Chinese New Year] is probably 30 per cent busier than usual in terms of both the spend and the number of customers," says Ms Xiao, who co-owns several restaurants in the Chinatown area including Zilver and The Eight Modern Chinese Restaurant.
Celebrating the new year ... performers rehearse The Golden Snake Dance backstage. Photo: Mick Tsikas
The restaurant director at The Century, Billy Wong, says bookings for Chinese New Year are made weeks in advance.
"It's the biggest holiday within the Chinese holiday calendar … and it's not just one day, it goes on for weeks," Mr Wong says, adding that food is a big part of Lunar New Year celebrations.
"There's a traditional thinking that you should eat well during Chinese New Year because that … will continue the good fortune and good times throughout the year."
A traditional New Year banquet features eight to 12 courses, specially selected for their connotations of luck, prosperity and good health and customers will pay a premium for certain dishes not offered at other times of the year.
Melbourne's Silk restaurant in the Crown casino is charging $888 per person for their nine-course New Year banquet menu, which includes dishes such as shark's fin soup and Japanese abalone. Most Sydney restaurants, however, are charging $80-$130 per person.
With local councils promoting Chinese New Year as a major cultural event, many restaurants are also offering a non-traditional menu with dishes more familiar to the Australian palate.
"The feedback from Australians trying the traditional menu is that they don't enjoy it," the manager at Palace Chinese Restaurant, Richard He, says. "It's not popular with Aussie people or even people with a Chinese background who are born and raised in Australia."
Billy Kwong's New Year feast, on the other hand, has taken a completely different path, where she is shunning the traditional in favour of the sustainable.
Kwong admits this is new territory for her cooking, but says she has been inspired by other chefs, including Noma's Rene Redzepi and D.O.M.'s Alex Atala, who have lauded edible insects as a sustainable source of protein.
"Six weeks ago, there was no way I could have even contemplated [eating insects]. It's only through studying and … understanding that my fear is becoming reduced," she says.
Although the 10-course, $150-per-person menu is yet to be finalised, cricket and salt-bush cakes served with home-made chilli sauce will be among the offerings. And while insects won't be the only item on the menu, Kwong says the dinner will be "a celebration of the arthropod", a group that includes insects, crustaceans and arachnids.
"Just look at a yabby, look at a crayfish, look at the prawns," Kwong says. "If you think about the look of a cricket, it's like a tiny crayfish or yabby, and I thought, 'What are you going on about, Kylie? Just get over it.'"
Kwong's edible insects - including 10,000 crickets bred to order - are sourced from local entomophagist Skye Blackburn, a former food scientist whose love of "bugs and creepy-crawly things" inspired her to start her own insect-breeding business.
"All of the insects we're supplying have been bred for eating … with no chemicals and a fresh diet of fruits, vegetables and grain, which comes through in how they taste," Ms Blackburn says.
While she concedes that most Australians don’t exactly leap at the opportunity to chow down a cockroach or guzzle a grasshopper, she says sheer economics compounded by environmental pressures will force more and more people to take a more open-minded approach to their food.
According to Blackburn, the rate at which insects convert food into body mass is about 10 times higher than beef. Unlike cattle, insects don’t need a whole-grain diet, which leaves more grain for people to consume. Also, insects require a fraction of the amount of water: less than 1 millilitre of water will yield 250 grams of cricket meat, compared with more than 3000 litres of water to produce the same amount of beef, Blackburn says.
“Definitely in the next eight to 10 years everybody will be eating bugs in their diet."
A creepy crawly menu
Kwong's dream menu features native Australian insects such as honey ants, witchetty grubs and bogong moths – ingredients that, at the moment, are difficult to source.
“No one's worked out how to produce them commercially yet,” Kwong says. “I've got someone literally out in the desert now hunting for witchetty grubs.”
Of the 10 courses, about six will have edible insects. Dishes will include:
° Stir-fried whole baby crickets with black bean and chilli
° Yabbies stir-fried in home-made chilli and cricket sauce, made by pounding unroasted crickets into a paste and mixing them with fresh garlic and ginger
° Wallaby, bug tail and goji berry siu mai
° Red braised, caramelised wallaby tail with Davidson plum and bee larvae.