How would you react if you were sitting in a bar and a waitress offered you some of her fried grasshoppers, some juicy silk worm larvae, or maybe even a big, crunchy scorpion? In Thailand it’s a normal daily occurrence. Whenever I’m out carousing at a local drinking establishment, one thing I can count on is having hawkers approach me with items for sale. The most item is the lovely, fragrant rose.
The salesperson is usually a mother holding her baby, or a small child with her/his mother keeping watch from a distance. Roses are very cheap by U.S. standards, normally about 80 cents each, or cheaper by volume. Foreign men will purchase the flowers in an effort to win the heart of the younger Thai lady with whom they are sharing a drink. More often than not, there is a small pile of wilting roses in front of each bar at closing time for the trash collector to pick up in the morning. I rarely purchase the flowers, but sometimes I’ll buy the kid a soda, or just give a few baht to the mom.
After roses, the most popular sales items are small, plastic containers loaded with natural snacks. The hawkers carry packages neatly stacked in plastic, grocery store hand baskets. Each container is priced at about one dollar and contains food items including: green mango with chili salt, cut fruits and vegetables, dried fish, and of course a variety of insects. The packages of bugs normally consist of the aforementioned grasshoppers, silk worm larvae, and scorpions, but also popular are crickets, mealworms, ants (and their eggs), and water bugs. When I say water bugs, yes, I’m talking about giant cockroaches.Most Americans are squeamish when it comes to eating these creepy-crawlies, and to be honest, I refuse to even attempt to eat most of them. I figure I’m in my mid-50s and if I’ve lived this long without eating a cockroach, I can make it the rest of the way. I have heard that grasshoppers are the easiest to eat because they are the crunchiest and taste like whatever is used to flavor them. Another advantage of the grasshoppers is you can use a leg as a toothpick when you’re finished eating!
The truth is, more of the world than not considers insects and other similar, minute species tasty delicacies. I often see the ladies who work in the bars buy containers full of crickets and mealworms and pass them around like bowls of chips. They’ve been eating them all their life and have favorites. They even have favorite vendors, “I like the silk worm larvae from Som better than Pham. Som’s are spicier!”
In addition to the women and kids who sell their offerings door-to-door, there are also vendors at most food markets and festivals who prepare the multi-legged treats right in front of you. They’ll throw a handful of mealworms or crickets into a wok and fry them to order. Many times, there are large pans full of a variety of insects, larvae, and other bugs just waiting to be bagged and taken. Most of the time, the bags of bugs are served with a skewer, just in case you want to eat them on the go.
Another similar type of food is called “dancing shrimp.” While technically not a bug, the dish consists of tiny shrimp (about a half-inch long), that are still alive! They are kept in a small, covered ceramic bowl until ready for consumption. The diner quickly squeezes lime juice and sprinkles ground chili on the little crustaceans (that’s gotta hurt), and then they catch them as they jump out of the dish and toss them into his/her mouth like popcorn … except alive and moving. It’s the freshest version of sashimi. I would try the dancing shrimp long before I would consider eating the large water bugs. Although, I’ve actually heard they are the tastiest of the bug world.
Thailand, as it turns out, is the world’s largest producer of edible insects. They are available around the world via the Internet, and are farmed here by the ton. Insects are extremely healthy, healthier and higher in protein than other meats. They would actually make a great addition to any low-carb diet! If you’re more gastronomically adventurous than me, I’d recommend going online and checking out what gourmet insect options are available in your area. Bon appetit!