Crispy roasted mini crickets and silkworms with different flavors are now being stocked in the country’s supermarkets.
Nutritious, crunchy and tasty, at least for some, edible insects may be the answer to feeding the world’s growing population with protein.
By Maxmilian Wechsler
Insects have been a food source around the world for thousands of years. And while entomophagy – the practice of eating insects – is uncommon in Western countries, it continues to have its devotees in many parts of Africa, South and Central America and Asia. It’s said there are about 2,000 species of insects around the world that can be safely consumed.
Insect snacks are popular in Cambodia, China and Vietnam. In Thailand, locals eat about 150 types of insect, including crickets, silkworms and dung beetles are readily available at markets or from street vendors. They are popular not only for their nutritional content, but also their crunchy texture and taste.
Foreigners walking past a cart filled with trays of various sorts of fried insects often find it hard to resist pausing to take a closer look, and perhaps wonder what it would be like to pop one of the strange delicacies in their mouth. The more adventurous may be offered a free sample by the seller.
Some websites give the perception that insects are only eaten by bargirls from the North and Northeast of Thailand, but according to a number of sellers this is absolutely incorrect. Their customers include middle and upper class Thais as well as migrant workers from neighboring countries.
She said before the Covid-19 lockdown many of her customers were regulars, mostly employed by hotels, bars and other entertainment places in the area. She explained that she normally sends friends to buy uncooked insects at Klong Toey wholesale market and they are kept refrigerated until time to fry them. “Someone else fries the insects for me, but some sellers do it themselves. Almost all of the street vendors in Bangkok buy insects at Klong Toey market.”
Before the lockdown street vendors were selling edible insects mainly during the night until early morning at various entertainment districts and markets. Between the curfew and lack of tourists almost all insect sellers are now shut down, but the vendor was confident that when the situation returns to normal people will again want to satisfy their more unusual appetites and allow her to make a living.
The biggest wholesale insect market in Thailand is Talard Rong Kluea, in Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province on the Cambodian border. Its many stalls contain just about every kind of edible insect found in this part of the world, all uncooked.
A Cambodian woman who has been making an early morning border crossing to sell at the market for many years said that only insects delivered live to the market sell at a good price. She said that about 90% of the insects sold at the market come from Cambodia and the rest from Thailand, and that insects from Cambodia are not caught with the use of poison as some people claim because if the insects are dead the price is much, much lower, and most people wouldn’t buy them at any price. Others disputed her claim, however, asking how big quantities of insects could be delivered to the market if no poison was used.
Where to find edible insects
In Bangkok, insect food can easily be found in several locations throughout the city, including Khao San Road, Soi Cowboy, along lower Sukhumvit Road, around Pahurat textile market near Chinatown, Patpong and Banglamphu near Phra Athit Pier.
Besides making a purchase of ready-to-eat insects wrapped in brown paper right on the street, you are also welcome to visit ‘Insects in the Backyard’, Thailand’s first proclaimed edible insect restaurant at the upscale Changhui Art Hub on Sirindhorn Road in Bang Phlat district. A look at the website shows some very positive marks from customers.
The bugs to die for
Some of the most popular edible insects in Thailand:
• Red ants (mot daeng)
• Red ant eggs (kai mod daeng)
• Grasshoppers (takatan)
• Silkworms (nhon mhai)
• Bamboo worms (rod duan)
• Crickets (jing reed)
• Mini (small) crickets (jing reed khai)
• Scorpions (meng pawng)
• Sago grups (tua duang)
• House crickets (mae sading)
• Giant water bugs (meng da na)
Klong Toey market – longtime source of edible insects
Inside the maze of narrow passages and lanes shoppers must give way to merchants pushing trolleys loaded with goods, motorcycle taxis, and from time to time a pick-up truck whose sides clear the stalls with only an inch or two to spare. It’s likely that numerous city codes are being violated but no one seems much concerned about that.
Before I found a large edible insects wholesaler under a roof at a section locals call ‘Lao market’, I had to pass by cages with live chickens and ducks waiting for slaughter and containers with different types of fish awaiting for the same fate. I found it more than a little distasteful.
I finally found Ms Chompu, who has been selling 12 kinds of dead and uncooked insects at the market for many years. She was very busy when I arrived at 1pm, selling insects by the kilo to Thai customers while conversing on a mobile. In between customers she weighed and packed insects into plastic bags ready for pick-up by her customers. She talked to other vendors in a language similar to Thai, probably Lao.
Ms Chompu didn’t have much time for me but she did answer a couple questions. She said she gets most of her insects from a place in Aranyaprathet district, most probably Talard Rong Kluea, at prices ranging from 90 to 350 baht per kilogram depending on the type of insect. She normally doesn’t sell less than one kg but she made an exception for me and sold 500 grams of four different kinds of insects. After taking photos of my purchases at home I gave them to my Laotian maid.
Another seller of edible insects in Klong Toey market has a shop some distance from Lao market. I was directed there by one of several vendors I asked. There was nothing on display in the shop, but it seemed obvious the seller didn’t lack for customers. She opened a large plastic container full of bags of dead, uncooked silkworms packed in ice and asked if I wanted to buy a bag. When I said no she closed the container and abruptly left.
High Society snacks
The marketing of edible insects has been taken to a whole new level by a company that packages and sells them under the logo ‘Hiso’. According to press reports, Hiso products are sold at 7-Eleven stores, Tesco Lotus, Family Mart and major supermarket chains. However, after visiting 32 7-Eleven outlets in Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani provinces at the beginning of June, I was able to find just one five-gram pack of BBQ Flavor Silkworms selling for five baht at a store in Nonthaburi.
Most 7-Eleven staff were familiar with the Hiso brand, but said they were out of stock. According to several employees Hiso products are a popular snack to munch on while drinking beer and whiskey. Clearly Hiso needs to ramp up production; with 11,700 7-Eleven outlets in Thailand as of March this year, there is a fortune to be made.
After visiting several supermarkets I finally found Hiso insects at a Big C on Rama IV Road. They had 15gr packs of BBQ Flavor Silkworms and 15gr Original Flavor Small Crickets selling for 27 baht each. The Hiso website shows four different flavors of silkworms and four flavors of crickets.
Some years ago the Thai Ministry of Public Health warned that people with allergies or asthma should avoid eating edible insects because they may contain high levels of histamine, a nitrogenous compound that elicits an allergic response. A serious allergic reaction could even result in death. A doctor at the ministry said insects also may be contaminated with pesticides.
The Health Thai Promotion Foundation also warned some years ago that people who have allergies should avoid eating silkworms and wasp grubs because they may result in fatal allergic reactions. Pregnant women and people with bone problems could be at risk because chitin and chitosan in insects’ exoskeletons can hinder calcium absorption.
Insects are rich in nutrients and rarely cause any problems if they are grilled or fried by country people or used in traditional salads and soups. But if vendors use low quality oil and repeatedly reuse the oil it could make their customers ill.