Insect delicacies for Lunch or Snack in Thailand

Nakhon Nayok resort 008Looking for a gastronomic adventure?

Insects are not part of the American diet yet, but in Thailand it dates back a few centuries and you can find them readily available in most fresh food markets around the country today.  It is a real challenge for an American boy to venture into the area of insect snacks, even with the continuous prodding from Thai friends and relatives.

So that you may get a head start on these Thai delicacies, I am here to report on the various varieties available to you.  Insects are eaten primarily in the Northeast part of Thailand — Isaan  — and in the mountain areas of the North, but often available in Bangkok markets and in the South.  There is no season for insects and they are available all year long.

Most insects are deep fried in a wok with a tangy sauce and Thai chili powder and are perfect for munching with beer on the veranda in the garden, along with a lot of good conversation. Kind of like popcorn or deep fried prawns.  The general taste for Thai insects is sort of like burned bacon.   If you are not yet ready for the insects, you are usually welcome in any case to sample some of the Thai beers.

Crickets

This is probably the common insect in Thailand for snacking, called the Ching Klong in Thai (short tailed cricket).  A fried cricket is about an inch and half long, and you grab them by the handful for munching.  Usually deep fried, but they can also be roasted or toasted.   Also sometimes you can find them wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

Crickets are loaded with protein (12.9 grams) and will help you (or me) lose weight with only 121 calories and 5.5 grams of fat (that’s better than chips).  If you have them deep fried, there is a bit more fat and calories added by the oil.

Bamboo Worms

Bamboo worms

Bamboo worms

Non Pai in Thai, white wiggly Bamboo worms are very common.  Think of Cheetos as you eat them, with a slight taste of corn with a bit more fiber.  They run about an inch long.

Besides a snack eaten by itself, they are also used to flavor other foods.  In SE Asia, you can buy Vodka off the shelf with a Bamboo Worm inside to flavor it.  Thais tell me that bamboo worms go especially well with Thai whiskey (which is actually more like a Rum).

insects packaged bamboo wormsBamboo worms are, of course, found in colonies within bamboo.  A female moth will lay about 80-120 eggs at the base of a bamboo, and they survive by eating the bamboo pulp.  In late summer, those that have escaped the Thai palate will mature into months and live about two months during which time she will lay the eggs for a new cycle.  When finding a colony, a Thai bamboo worm hunter can have each colony  provide thousands of the worms from several clusters of moth eggs.

The worms are usually cooked alive and squirm around the wok as they sizzle to perfection.

Weaver Ant Eggs

Weaver ants build their colonies in trees, weaving together a basketball size fortress of leaves.  You see them in the trees all over Thailand and the nests look something like a head of cabbage.  For most people these red ants are pests, running amok around the garden eating many of the fruits on trees and can even attack a person.  The eggs found in the colonies, however, are a Thai delicacy, along with the ants themselves.

To take down a Weaver Ant nest in order to harvest the eggs is not an easy job as they are ferociously guarded by an army of stinging, biting ant soldiers that inject a toxin onto the intruder.  This is not for an amateur to consider doing.  Best to leave this job to the professional Weaver Ant Nest Harvester.

The eggs are a creamy flavor and the ants are a bit sour and creamy, and they look like small white beans.  Some Southeast Asian cuisines suggest mixing a few of the ants with rice or mixed in with (fowl) egg to make a salad, on in soups or fried with chicken eggs.  The Weaver Ant Eggs are often preserved and sold in retail packaging.

Tarantula

Tarantulas ready to eat

Tarantulas ready to eat

Think Chicken Wings.  Deep fried tarantulas are similar.  Maybe this is something KFC should consider in order expand their menu?  Or maybe it is more sort of like a soft shelled crab.  These are especially appreciated in Cambodia, and surrounding countries in SE Asia.  They are usually deep fried with garlic and spices, and often you will see little girls walking around the market to peddle them to anxious consumers.  Crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  These creatures can be as big as a small fist.

My understanding is that if you are an arachnophobic (dreadful fear of spiders), eating a bowl of these should provide you with a permanent cure.

These tarantulas grow wild in the southern forests of Thailand and Cambodia, but because of the demand there are many breeders that are providing large quantities for the markets  (with a large herd of tarantulas).  Sometimes you will see a large bucket of these things alive so that they can be cooked fresh.  Don’t stick your hand in the bucket.

Water Bug

These are a bit larger creatures, coming in at about 3 inches long, fat with very evil looking legs.  It is a brave American that has lived most his life on pizza and hamburgers and fries to venture into the realm of this monster.  The water bugs live in the rice fields and farmers catch them during the night by using a light that attracts the bugs into a net.  In Thai, they are call Maeng da, and they look something like a giant American cockroach (the real kind, not the politicians).

Fortunately, Thais usually remove the head and wings before preparing, and leave just the edible parts are the large body and legs.  The taste could be described as like watery scrambled eggs.  Water Bugs have a particular smell (Thais have a much stronger sense for smell than most Westerners) that Thais enjoy with their meal, and they even sell a special liquid smell formula with an eye dropper called “Essence of Maeng da” that you can add to your table cuisine and it is also used in the preparation of Thai chilies.  The smell is something like licorice candy.

Scorpion

Having lived most of my life close to Mexico (California, aka Northern Mexico), I have learned to fear Scorpions (they have historically killed a lot of Mexicans).  Even though only a few varieties of them can actually kill people, they get a lot of bad publicity, so I was not so eager to try this one.  The big challenge with exotic food is overcoming the protections your brain has given you from the horror stories that have been passed on.  I am told by those knowledgeable in biology that Scorpions are not really insects, but belong to the same family as lobsters.  OK, but still a bug to me.  That does not make it any easier for me to be biting into a roasted Scorpion.  It is sort of like salty chicken, and nothing close to how a lobster tastes.  I really could not find anyone — Thai or Farang — that really liked the taste of Scorpion.

Besides being roasted, which you then crack open to get the meat, Scorpions are also put in a bottle of Vodka to enhance the taste.  In the Thai markets you can find plenty of these Scorpion Vodkas on the shelf.  I have also seen Scorpion Lollipops with a full size critter visible in the clear lollipop.

So Why do Westerners eat such Normal Food and Thais have such Weird Things?

insects retail cansIt is all a matter of perspective.  Thais look at Westerners eating cheese, which is compressed curdled mammal’s milk loaded with fat and cholesterol as quite odd.  Plus with their enhanced sense of smell (which is my opinion since they all seem to smell things I cannot smell), they find it repugnant.  A Thai would look at my slice of Peperoni Pizza dripping in cheese with slices of highly processed and chemicalized slices of mixed pork and beef as very strange food.  And they do have a point.

Think of cottage cheese.  Such a nice name for the curdled and soured milk from cows.  Thais take one look at it and run.

Thais are also not so fond of Beef.  They will take a little bit cut up and mixed with other foods, like vegetables and noodles, but the thought of a big thick piece of Top Sirloin Beef grilled reminds them a little like cannibalism.  And they are also not fond of the smell of beef meat roasting on a grill.   When I first met my Thai wife quite a few years ago in California, she confessed to me that she had never tasted a hamburger, so I took her to what I considered the best fast food burgers in the area, In and Out Burger.  The only part of the hamburger she could eat was the toasted bun, and she was repulsed by the odor.  I never took her for a burger again.

So before us gourmet-directed Americans start throwing stones, we need to look a little closer at our own very strange cuisines.

If you have a favorite unusual Thai food you have experimented with, please share it with everyone in the comments.

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9 thoughts on “Insect delicacies for Lunch or Snack in Thailand

  1. American Fast Food of almost any sort, I find revolting after if gets past my teeth and swallowed. Great mouth feel, but “bombs away” when it hits my gut and I begin to feel bloated and full of lethargy. Great idea trying a few insects, I have a few here at my place free of charge I can try right now. Wait a minute…….

    Not too bad if I do say. Also, the nice thing is that the insects are too small, and lifespans too short, to build up any appreciable toxins and chemicals from the environment in their cute little bodies.

    I am up for the better tasting ones, and since I enjoy spicy food, I am wondering if the formic acid in fire ants might satisfy my craving. I enjoy eating almost any good local food, so why balk at insects, as you say? I imagine I will like them best fried up in a wok with chili pepper, maybe some garlic.

    You really need to follow this up with an insect connoisseur’s guide to frying up this very wholesome food. I have seen some good cooking shows demonstrating how this is done. If I can find the link to the video, I will certainly post it here, it is worth watching.

  2. Very interesting! I’ve been here in Thailand now a little over 6 months and have tried a lot of different Thai dishes. I’m a huge fan of fish, prawns, etc. In America when you order fish you get just the simple fish meat. Here, the fish comes out with everything included, head, fins, tail and what-not. Usually it’s served over a flame and floating in some really fantastic tasting soup. I love it.

    And the salmon….dear god the salmon is awesome!

    Haven’t tried the bugs just yet but give me time…. one day I’m sure I will.

        • Well, not exactly. But I was next to someone more brave then me that did and I am recording their reactions (OK, that makes me sound kind of wimpy, huh?). There are also maggots for sale, but I draw the line on that one. I don’t even want to be close to the bowl where they sell those creatures.

  3. I have tried scorpions, cock roaches*, monster-sized grasshoppers, small grasshoppers, boiled silk worms, and live “dancing” shrimp. Here is a little recap of what happened that day when I sat down with some Isaan friends, a lot of alcohol, and a bunch of disgusting insects.
    For me the scorpions were the easiest to eat, some tequila plus beer; what alpha male wouldn’t want to eat a big black scorpion when he is a little buzzed and his drunken friends are screaming “do it, eat it”. Actually for me there was absolutely no taste. Scorpions reminded me of saltine crackers without the salt; bland and crunchy. I am pretty sure I could eat them again sober no problem.
    To chow down on the grasshoppers I had to take a BIG swig of whiskey straight from the bottle and then I quickly chowed down 4 or 5 small ones and then choked down a big one that had legs the size of fried chicken wings. Once again the grasshoppers had very little taste, but sticking an insect that was longer than my palm into my mouth made want to wretch.
    Next on my list of horror was the boiled silk worms. Visually they weren’t as repulsive as the other items on the menu but once you put them in your mouth and bit into them their disgusting bug juice squirts into your mouth. I guess if you enjoy having liquids shot into your mouth like some guys do that it might not be so bad, but for me I would get queasy a week later even thinking about the experience.
    The worst for me though was eating the cockroach, because cockroaches of course are dirty creatures that in the subconscious mind are closely related to filth, waste, and disease. I was of course extremely hammered by this time but I still needed to take another long swig of whiskey before I managed to put that thing in my mouth and chew it up and swallow it. I don’t remember anything about the taste of the cockroach because by this time my head was spinning drunk and had trouble just standing up. I did find out a few days later that what I ate was not actually a true cockroach but some other type of insect, but at the time I consumed it I 100% believed it to be a cockroach.
    Lastly the live shrimp are actually quite good. They bring a tray out with a bowl on it which has another bowl over it as a cover, then they remove the covering bowl and in the bottom bowl are live shrimp swimming around in lime juice and chili pepper. Very tasty, except kind of weird to have something alive squirming around in your mouth, fighting for its life until you bite down and kill it..

  4. “I am told by those knowledgeable in biology that Scorpions are not really insects, but belong to the same family as lobsters. OK, but still a bug to me.”

    In Maine they call lobsters “bugs” because they have no central nervous system. Go figure.
    I’ll be happy to try insects any time I encounter the opportunity with others, but I’m not goin lookin for em.

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