The idea of chowing down on a handful of fried insects might sound disgusting to a Western palate, but people in Thailand have been following the practice for centuries. Originating among northern provinces where impoverished farmers killed two birds with one stone by removing the bugs that ate their crops and making a profit on their haul as well, entomophagy (the technical term for eating insects) slowly spread to the urban epicentres of the country, too.
Nowadays, it’s commonplace to see cartloads of bugs being sold by street vendors all over the city in Bangkok, Phuket and beyond. Often fried in soy sauce, dusted with seasoning and served as a salty, crunchy snack alongside ice cold beers, eating bugs is an intrinsic part of normal life for Thai people. The practice might not be quite so appetising to tourists to the country, but it’s well worth giving it a go while you’re in town, if only for the cultural experience. Here are some of the most common creepy-crawlies on offer from street vendors all over Thailand:
Perhaps the most commonly seen edible insect on the streets of Thailand, grasshoppers are normally between 5cm and 10cm in length and are fried or dry roasted intact. While they can certainly be devoured without any prior preparation, removing the wings and legs might make for a more pleasant dining experience, since these body parts have a tendency to get caught in your teeth. Their texture is satisfyingly crunchy and they tend to take on the taste of whatever flavours they were cooked in or seasoned with – saltiness is often the overriding impression.
Around 2cm to 3cm in length, bamboo worms are probably the least offensive and most accessible critter on this list. They spend their whole lives gorging themselves on the pulp inside bamboo shoots, but when they’re harvested by farmers living in rural locations, they’re fried alive and can be preserved for up to three years. Their remote location makes them a slightly pricier choice than some of the other bugs available, but the neutral taste and popcorn-like texture make them a firm favourite among first-time tourists and seasoned locals alike.
While crickets might look quite similar to grasshoppers in appearance, they’re worlds apart in taste and texture. For starters, the flavour is much sharper and perhaps closer to what you might be expecting if you imagined eating a bug with no prior knowledge. Meanwhile, they’re far less crunchy than grasshoppers and the main torso of their bodies has a soft centre that can be surprising and unpleasant to those not expecting it. Additionally, their large legs are even more susceptible to getting stuck in your teeth than grasshoppers, so removing them beforehand is advisable.
By far the largest insect on this list, giant water bugs can’t simply be popped in your mouth like all the others. Instead, you’ll have to do a bit of legwork to get at the meat inside; think of an insect-sized lobster for comparison. After pulling away its wings, peeling back its hard outer shell and removing its head, you can scoop inside to access the soft, juicy meat. The taste is difficult to define, but it carries a sourness with it reminiscent of aniseed, and can be too overpowering for some. A milder form of eating giant water bugs can be accessed through trying nam prik chili sauces, to which their essence is commonly added.
Fatter, squatter and more squidgy than the insects mentioned above, silkworms are excellent at absorbing the flavours in which they are cooked. Since kaffir lime leaves and peanuts are often included in the pan alongside them, you can expect to detect hints of either or perhaps both, while the silkworm itself has a crispy outer shell and a soft, mushy centre like mashed potato. They’re one of the most palatable bugs on this list and could be a good starting point for those put off by the crunch of grasshoppers or crickets.
While entomophagy might still make those accustomed to a Western diet retch, it could become a common practice all over the world in the not-too-distant future. With a global population that shows no signs of slowing and concerns over food security on the rise, insects represent a cheap, abundant and nutritious source of food that is far more environmentally-friendlythan traditionally sources of protein like poultry and livestock. Why wait until your next trip to Thailand, or until necessity makes a virtue of itself? Get stuck into insect tucker now and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainable gastronomy.