The idea of eating insects in Thailand might sound alien 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 in Thailand is an intrinsic part of normal life for many Thai.
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's just a few of the more usual bugs and where to find them.
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 are 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 travellers.
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 chilli 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.
Here's some of the best spots to find edible insects in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. If you can't make it to these, just keep an eye out on the street food carts, particularly along the food markets where it's common to spot insect street food.
Talad Rot Fi is a sprawling colourful night market along Ratchadaphisek Road. Wander along the rows of market stalls and there's always one or two selling edible insects. It's quite a popular spot among foreigners, so there is a good change the vendor speaks a little English too. The bugs here are best eaten with a cold beer at one of the peripheral live music bars.
Like most things along the backpacker street in Bangkok, the bug sellers are geared up to farang. That means not only will you find the grasshoppers and the crickets, but you'll likely find the sellers peddling more exotic species like scorpions and tarantulas to drunken foreigners looking for an interesting cultural experience. They may be a little more expensive that the bugs elsewhere.
1 Kasem Rat Road
For all of Bangkok's food under one corrugated roof, make a beeline for the massive Khlong Toei market. Among the butchers and fish mongers, fruit stalls and hot food carts, there's always a few insect sellers. It's impossible to pinpoint one within the labyrinth of market stalls, but you won't have trouble finding one.
169 Ratchapakhinai Road
If you find yourself needing bug fix in Chiang Mai, there are a few spots in town. However, some of the freshest and best spiced are found in Thanin Market just north of the old town. Work your way to the centre of the small market where one of the stalls has a large spread of bugs from across Thailand. Particularly good are the bamboo worms which are found in the forests around the city.
If you can't make it to Thanin Market, the next best are sold at several carts along the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar a little east of the old town. Just wander along the market edge and keep a look out for one of the several stalls selling the edible bugs. Be warned, this is a tourist hotspot so the bugs will be more expensive than at Thanin Market.
Bugs are more popular in Northern Thailand than in the south. That said, if you're on the island of Phuket, head to Bangla Road in Patong where several vendors ply fried insects to foreigners.
Still confused about what to eat in Thailand? To truly discover the best food in the country, try this Bangkok food tour, Phuket food tour or Chiang Mai food tour where you'll be led to some excellent street eats by expert local food guides.
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