31 May 2013
Eating insects: Sudden popularity
Everyone is eating insects nowadays, even expensive restaurants (US, Thai, Japanese) but the old traditions of
collecting & cooking insects haven't changed much.
Tourists buying some insects to eat at a street vendor in Bangkok
Land of the locust eaters
Thailand's craving for cooked creepy-crawlies has gone upmarket
Deep fried cricket is one of Thailand's most popular street foods
Insects such as the crickets here are even being used to make Japanese Sushi nowadays
Despite recent media excitement about big city restaurants in the West that
highlight bug cuisine, such as San Francisco's Don Bugito, New York's Brooklyn Kitchen and Nice's Michelin-starred
Aphrodite, insect-eating is nothing new nor exotic in Thailand, where carts selling crispy fried grasshoppers can
be spotted only a few metres from a KFC.
In fact, cooked bugs have been a gastronomic delight among Thai people, especially
those in the North and Northeast, for more than a century. Incredibly, there are around 200 types of edible insects
in the Kingdom. Interestingly, two dozen of them are habitually consumed by both country folk and urbanites
Thailand, however, is not the only entomophagous (bug-eating) country. The Food
and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says people in 112 other nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America have
long eaten insects.
But what makes our bug-eating culture remarkable is that Thais have consciously
preserved, passed on and developed this culinary heritage to blend in with our modern gastronomy and urban
"People from Western countries assume that Thais simply eat insects right out of
the ground. That's absolutely not what happens," said associate professor Yupa Hanboonsong, one of the co-authors
of an FAO-endorsed book Six-legged Livestock: Edible Insect Farming, Collecting And Marketing In Thailand, which
was launched a couple of weeks ago.
Insects such as the crickets here are even being used to make Japanese Sushi
The entomology professor at Khon Kaen University's Agriculture Faculty said that,
in Thailand, the process of harvesting, cleaning, cooking and serving insects is carried out with all due
"First of all, we don't just go into a wide open space and grab whatever bugs are
available. The older generations have taught us what to pick and what to avoid, for the sake of safety and also
sustainability. There are types of bugs that we don't eat either because they are poisonous or they are in their
reproductive stage," she explained.
Secondly, Thais don't eat raw insects and we don't cook dead bugs. The insects
must be fresh and alive before we prepare them. Even just cleaning them requires meticulous work. Some insects need
to have certain parts removed before being cooked, including their guts and legs as well as their
To clean faeces from a dung beetle's stomach, for example, we have to let the bugs
swim in a bowl of water which will make them excrete all the faeces before we prepare them. It takes time and
indigenous know-how to accomplish this.
Impressively, such time-honoured wisdom has been seamlessly combined with
up-to-date manufacturing and marketing when it comes to modern gastronomy.
Foreseeing that over-harvesting of edible insects might endanger them, a group of
entomologists at Khon Kaen University started an insect farming project 15 years ago to prolong the domestic
consumption of these seasonal, short-lived species.
Thanks to their success, which has inspired and paved the way for farmers
countrywide, the gourmet-bug industry in Thailand is expanding quickly, generating millions of baht per
Today, places where tastily crunchy bugs can be savoured are no longer limited to
ungraceful streetside food carts owned by Isan folk. Imaginative varieties of worms, locusts and larvae in neat
packaging are also available at sleek kiosks located in air-con shopping plazas and on supermarket shelves. And
they aren't cheap.
There are also a number of dining establishments that featuree insect-inspired
cuisine. Check out Japan I Larb You, a Japanese restaurant at Mega Bangna, should you wish to try sushi topped with
crispy crickets, palm weevil larvae and silkworms.
''I believe this evolution derives from the manufacturers' simple idea to make the
insects more convenient to enjoy and easier to store. That has given them a more appealing image which has also
helped attract first-timers,'' said Prof Yupa.
''Meanwhile, Thais never consider bug-eating as bizarre. We don't treat insects as
rustic fare nor food for survival. We are showing the world that insects are just another gastronomic option that
are as tasty and nutritious as mainstream meat.''
However, Prof Yupa argued that it was never her intention to set a new food trend
nor convert everyone in the world to insect-eating. Although these tiny critters may be as rich in protein as beef
or chicken, insects will never replace mainstream choices when it comes to universal diet.
''My mission is to preserve our farmland culture and domestic species. Unless we
treat this subject sensibly, the bug-eating tradition will disappear from our society very soon either from the
extinction of insects themselves or due to their declining popularity. And, sadly, our younger generation will only
know hamburgers and fried chicken,'' she said.
Taste bud pleasure is the main factor that’s drawn urban diners and international
tourists to the comfort of bug-munching over the past years.
Among the various types of edible bugs widely available in Thailand, the most
popular are grasshoppers, jing reed (house crickets), maeng sading (white crickets), malaeng da na (water bugs),
mang kood ji (dung beetles), silkworms, rod duan (bamboo caterpillars), ant larvae and red ants' eggs
According to Prof Yupa, the industry's best-selling species is the cricket, with
the bamboo caterpillar, which tastes quite similar to French fries but is twice the price, in second
The entomologist insists the factor that's drawn urbane diners and international
tourists to the comfort of bug-munching over the past years is taste bud pleasure, not the fact that the insects
are a good source of nutrients, nor whether the world will run out of food sources in the near future.
''I believe bug-eaters in the old days didn't even know insects were nutritious.
They ate them solely because they're addictively tasty,'' said Prof Yupa. ''I cannot put into words how marvellous
each type of bug tastes."
''You have to try them for yourself. But I've heard many people say they taste
like shrimp, especially grasshoppers. The only thing that makes a grasshopper different from a shrimp is that they
Prof Yupa said that while she doesn't have any official statistics indicating an
increase in popularity of bugs among the younger generation, she does have anecdotal evidence.
''I can share this with you: when a picture of grasshoppers was shown in a college
class 20 years ago, all the students identified them as the No.1 enemy of rice farmers,'' she said.
''Now, when I showed the picture of grasshoppers to my students, the only comment
I heard was tasty!''
Forget the deep-fried, soy sauce leavened stereotype, insects can be relished in
various other ways than as a crispy snack. They may be even served as the gourmet centrepiece of a meal.
One of the most popular northern specialities prepared with dung beetles is nam
prik (chilli dip), in which the cooked bug is pounded and added to the spicy mixture.
And crickets are enjoyed in the Northeast as khua kling (stir-fried minced meat
with herbs and spices) and yum (sour and spicy salad).
Other common ways to cook arthropods are grilling, boiling and mhok (stuffed with
minced pork before steaming.
''My favourite is kai jeaw kai mod daeng [omelette with red ant eggs],'' said Prof
''It's a super tasty dish that's very easy to prepare. Just add the insect caviar
to the mixture like how you make omelette with minced pork.''
Fresh insects for cooking are usually sold at Klong Toey wet market and Talad Thai
Yet, to cater to the increasing demand from urban entomophagi, some hypermarkets
such as Makro also carry a large selection of uncooked, frozen insects that have been certified by the Ministry of
- Bangkok Post