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.
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.
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).
Bamboo 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.
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.
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.
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?
It 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.