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Bugs at Billy Kwong’s, Sydney, Australia

October 22, 2015

Wonton&Crickets@KwongBilly Kwong Restaurant Oct 20, 2015

The flight from Melbourne to Sydney was smooth until the muffled announcement that the Sydney airport closed because of a major storm. We were assured that although we would need to circle for a while, we had enough fuel for this, which was only partly reassuring. Why was our fuel supply even an issue? We landed just before 7 PM, about half an hour late. Since I had an 8 PM reservation at Billy Kwong’s restaurant in Pott’s Point, I rushed out – to wait in a long line for taxis. Eventually got a cabbie that didn’t seem to know the “well-known” street and hotel (Macleay Hotel) to which I was going. About $60 later we got there (via tunnels and toll roads), and I rushed in to shower and change clothes. Fortunately Billy Kwong’s was just next door.

Having read a 2013 interview with Kylie Kwong about integrating varied and delicious insect dishes into their Australian-Chinese eco-friendly cuisine, I was excited to try it. In that interview, which emphasized her journey from entomophobe to a champion of insects as a sustainable and delicious food source, she had said that “They’re all an integral part of the Billy Kwong menu now.” http://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/food-and-drink/article/dishing-insects-kylie-kwong-billy

A warm (25 degrees) Tuesday evening, and the darkly-lit place was bustling: young, beautiful, svelte, ever-warm-and-friendly waiters, bartenders and various other workers slipped and danced smoothly past each other, among patrons, into and out of the wine cellar, the bar, past the open kitchen, never colliding, a ballet of blackly clad grace, food and alcohol. The atmosphere was warm, friendly, cosiness without claustrophobia, inclusiveness without intrusion. I was shown to one of the few open stools at the bar. I looked over the menu and didn’t see any bugs.
Miranda, my slight, light-footed waitress was quick and friendly and asked what I wanted. I said I was from Canada, working on a book about eating insects around the world and its evolutionary and cultural contexts. I had made the reservation months ahead (in early July), explaining exactly why I was coming, so that I could sample Kwong’s internationally advertised dishes that included insects, and compare it to what I was seeing elsewhere in the world.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said sweetly. “We don’t have any insect dishes right now. Is there something else you would like?”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Listen,” I said above the din of voices and constant, hip, music, “I came here specifically for the insects. It’s the only reason I am in Sydney. I have visited restaurants in Paris, Vientiane, and Tokyo and will be going to Public in Brisbane, and now I am here. I am writing a book about insect dishes, and I only came to Sydney for the insect dishes advertised at this restaurant.” After I had repeated the same information several times, in different ways, with different emphases in the sentences, she finally said she would go check with the chef. Would I like a drink?”

At that point, exhausted from travel and sleeplessness, I certainly did need a drink. Fortunately, “Billy Kwong’s special gin” is excellent, clean, not-too-sweet. I asked the bartender if this was crowd was unusual. No she said. The place was even fuller on weekends. What nationality do you think I am, she asked slyly with a slight non-Germanic European accent, and don’t say French. I was really tired, and annoyed, so despite her tall, Slavic beauty, the high cheekbones, the slightly-bemused, somewhat widely-set brown eyes, I said Belgian. Czech, she said: Lenka Vosmikova.

I looked around at the groups and couples along the bar and leaning in to each other, laughing, engaged in conversations. I had a brief, wistful twinge about not being forty-years younger, and realized that I would have been as much a stranger to this crowd then as I was now. I wouldn’t have even been an observer of this lifestyle at that age, being poorer, less confident of, or comfortable with, my place in the world, and more earnestly engaged with looking for meaning in other places.

I think I was on my second gin, trying to keep my anger and anxiety down, WTF was I doing here? when Miranda came back with what she described as “fantastic news”: the chef (not sure if it was Kylie Kwong herself) would make me crispy fried wanton and sweet chili sauce with crickets.

The wanton were indeed a crispy fried pastry wrapped around prawns – and a light sprinkling of cricket bits on top (see photo). I had to take out my iPhone and shine the flashlight on the dish to find them. Well, I thought, they really did kill them when they were little. The wanton were perfect combination of crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle (as the polar bears in a Gary Larson cartoon said of an igloo). I ordered a plate of the crispy fried wantons with prawns and no crickets, just for comparison. Really the only difference was the sprinkling of cricket bits over the wanton, with no discernible difference in flavour. I asked my waitress if this was how the chef usually prepared insects, and she informed me that they had to be subtle about introducing such new cuisine to Australians, so yes, she only included small amounts.

I was disappointed. Why would anyone come to Bill Kwong and order the cricket wanton? So they could go with a good eco-conscience and big wallet to a classy restaurant with lively ambiance, genial company, locally grown pork, prawns, warrigal greens and wallaby tails, but at the same time tell their friends that they had eaten “bugs”? Adventurous eating without the adventure?

Later, Miranda brought me a small dish of roasted mealworms – about a teaspoon full. They were crunchy, “slightly nutty” as they say, not at all greasy –and not worth travelling the world for. A package from Next Millennium Farms in Ontario would have done as well.

I watched Lenka vigorously shake up a drink that looked like a Pisco sour, complete with egg whites. I asked her what it was:  “Angelino Come Back” – named after a favourite bartender who had returned to his Italian homeland. Gin fused with jasmine, honey, ginger, lemon and egg whites. Very refreshing (well, after two of Billy’s gins, I suppose many drinks would have seemed that way). Over the course of the evening, I supplemented the alcohol with two litres of sparkling water and a large pot of mint-ginger tea.

Stepping out into the warm evening of what was clearly a “hip” district, even mid week, I found Lenka out front, stuffing a full black garbage bag into the trash bin. It occurred to me that she had been traveling the world with an apparent confidence and ease that I never had when I was younger. Some of that I can chalk up to a (charming?) naivete I had back then, and – thanks to the simple, blinkered world of the hitch-hiker –  an obliviousness to the diverse worlds that comprise the “one world” we aspire to. The worlds back then seemed simpler, less dangerous. Today, thanks largely to the internet – within and among the post-911 worlds of danger, terrorism, plundering neoliberal and state businesses, refugees, wars, extreme poverty – the many other micro-worlds we inhabit invade and alter our minds and perspectives daily, even hourly, and offer many alternative journeys around the planet. There are the young and beautiful, travellers and activists, neo-urban farmers raising chickens and bees and permaculture, re-invigorated and redefined indigenous nations. It’s not clear to me yet where the “new entomophagists” fit into this inchoate mix of evolving global cultures; in some ways, coming from the margins of all these cultures, they will find many homes, some where crickets are a garnish, and some where they are the main protein source.

For people like Lenka and others who worked in a restaurant that virtually champions insect cuisine but seems to soft-pedal it in practice, I am not sure where such issues register, if at all. I wished her well, and returned to my clean, white & black modernist room at the Macleay, less angry than I’d been a few hours earlier.

I stood for a while at my window, looking out over the beautiful city skyline. I was – and am – puzzled over the high profile insect cuisine carries internationally and virtually, especially in some circles, and the low, near invisible profile it carries locally, in daily lives of most people. This has to do with the ways in which social media have often reinforced fragmented understandings of the world; there are implicit – and false –  assumptions in each isolated group that others are working from the same visions and knowledge.

I recall attending a conference, in Alexandria, of that massive global initiative of the early 2000s, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. The title of the conference was “Bridging Scales and Epistemologies,“ and emphasized the challenges of listening across cultures, having mutually respectful communications across different world views, and creating effective linkages that could encompass individuals, villages, governments, and, indeed, the whole earth. If the world of insect-eating is any indication, it seems to me that the important conversations to begin designing these bridges has barely begun.

 

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