In pictures: Eating insects in Thailand
Areerat Jantao is one of the many food vendors plying their trade on the streets of Bangkok. Her fare - fried insects - may not be to everyone’s tastes, but she certainly has no shortage of customers. Many of the girls working in Bangkok’s bars and clubs come from northern Thailand, where insects are highly prized for their protein content. But Areerat’s snacks are also proving popular with Asian and Middle Eastern tourists, and the occasional – usually drunk – Westerner.
Areerat sells a variety of fried insects on her stall – including crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches, water beetles, bamboo worms and ant eggs. “The bar girls like the bamboo worms best. But it’s quite difficult to fry them without the insides popping out. I know the secret, though – lots of oil and a low heat. “The Vietnamese and Chinese like scorpions. They want to eat the tails as that’s where the sting is. They believe that eating the sting will make them grow strong.”
Areerat's most popular offering is a 20 baht (50 cent, 25p) bag of grasshoppers. But she has her own personal favourite. “I prefer a type of cockroach with lots of sticky eggs inside, which makes them very tasty,” says Areerat. “My favourites are water beetles," adds her husband Udon, who also sells insects. "They have more meat inside and they’re quite chewy. I eat them all the time. Sometimes I even eat dung beetles, although not many people want to buy them.”
Like most of the Thais who sell and eat insects, Areerat and Udon come from an impoverished part of north-eastern Thailand, with few other employment opportunities. They travel down to Bangkok for months at a time, leaving their daughter in the care of relatives. “I can make 1000 baht ($32) a night,” Areerat says. But it is also hard work – cooking during the afternoon, plying the streets of Bangkok’s entertainment district until 2am, then going to the early market to buy supplies.
Back in their home village in Sakon Nakhon province, they try to supplement their income by catching their own insects to sell locally. Using a UV light, they catch bugs outside their house – some of which they eat themselves and others they sell in the local market. It is a trend that is increasing in popularity in the region. In fact local agricultural specialists are actively encouraging people to catch their own insects, and even specifically farm them.
The area is drying up – a fact many local people attribute to global warming - and what used to be paddy fields are now patches of dry grassland unsuitable for much more than grazing cattle. Farming insects provides a cheap and simple alternative. “It involves very few initial costs, and anyone can do it,” says Prayad Yupin, from the region’s Agricultural Development Research Centre. “And they’re a good way to supplement your diet. They’ve got a lot of calcium and protein.”
Arkom Wongkalasin, who lives in the nearby village of Kum Tabmaung, has already taken the centre’s advice. He breeds crickets in special giant crates, and then sells them at the local market. “It takes 45 days from when the insects are born to when they’re ready to sell,” he says. “We give them vegetables to eat, and a special vitamin mix to keep them healthy.”
Arkom is finding that his produce is in high demand. “We completely sold out of everything during Buddhist New Year – people were asking for more but we didn’t have enough.” But when he doesn’t manage to sell all his insects, he has a simple solution. “My family all love eating them," he says. “I like to cook my crickets with chilli and lemongrass. We have them with rice. "People who have never had them before don’t know what they’re missing.”
In the interests of research, I had to have some really, so I chose Areerat Jantao’s best-selling grasshoppers.
“They taste just like chips,” she assured me encouragingly. They did taste like chips, in the sense that they were covered with oil, but the problem was that they were like chips with legs. And no matter how nutritious these insects are, that’s something which might just put people off having insects for dinner.