Micro livestock: The fried bugs keeping Thailand's tourists nourished

Micro livestock: The fried bugs keeping Thailand's tourists nourished

Thinking of giving this highly alternative snack a try? Here's a guide to Thailand's edible insects
Parked most evenings on tourist-packed Khao San Road, vendor Rawiwan's pushcart offers insects like grasshoppers, silk worms and water beetles.

A British tourist opens her mouth, delicately grabs a fried grasshopper by the head, hesitantly tongues the insect's spindly hind legs, and bites the bug. 

"Ooooooooooooooh," says 55-year-old Beverly Burnett, her face creasing with laughter, amazement, triumph and glee.

The fried grasshopper, also known as a locust, tastes "like crispy chicken," she says.

"I ate a grasshopper, silk worm and coconut worm." 

Tourist Beverly Burnett delicately grabs a fried grasshopper by the head and chomps down.Salivating at the sight of other bugs, Burnett asks the vendor, "What else is good? They are all good? What are these? Beetles? Crickets? Oh, let me try crickets.  One of each."

A small crowd of other tourists gather and gape at her daring diet. 

Looking at some flat-bellied water bugs, Burnett balks.

"No, I'm not eating that. I can't eat cockroach." 

Told that the creature is not a cockroach and actually a water bug -- a common misconception among tourists -- she relaxes a bit, but averts her gaze.

Her favorite?  "Grasshopper!"

Would Burnett dine on bugs back home in England?

"Probably not, because they don't sell them like this, do they?  It's the whole thing about being in Bangkok, innit?"

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'It looks like a witchetty grub'

"I like to eat these silk worms," says vendor Rawiwan Khamnoi, who sells one big spoonful of the puffy oval larvae for 30 baht.Now it's your turn. 

When you've overdosed on opulent Thai food, and can't quite stomach another bland Western meal, it may be time to bravely approach the pushcarts in Thailand's streets where edible creepy-crawlies are offered as tasty treats.

Rich in protein, a big pile of insects could even serve as a main course.

Most diners, however, nibble a handful as a Darwinian snack, displaying a human twist to the cuisine cliché of cat-eat-mouse.

"It tastes like chicken, yeah, a little bit," says Mark Spedding, 25, a bar manager from England, after sampling silk worm larvae for the first time.

"It looks like a witchetty grub that you see on telly. It's not as juicy as I thought it would be. Quite dry."

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It's OK to eat bugs

Insects are eaten in many countries throughout the world, especially across Africa and Asia.

Various religious texts give locusts the thumbs-up, and -- issues of blasphemy aside -- international health officials advise that insects can be high protein, low cholesterol and also pack plenty of minerals and vitamins. 

They must be new here. In the United States, a Montana State University determined that 100 grams of grasshopper packs more than 20 grams of protein and 35 grams of calcium.

The trendy commercial label for them is "micro livestock." 

"I sell about 10 different insects -- I like to eat these silk worms, but tourists like these grasshoppers," says Rawiwan Khamnoi, 32, who has been selling fried insects for the past two years. 

"It will cost you 30 baht for one bag of about five grasshoppers, or one spoon of silk worms," she says displaying an oversized, stainless steel spoon to scoop up the puffy oval larvae. 

Rawiwan sells a small bag of fried water bugs -- known as "maengda" in Thai -- for 50 baht, and also offers worms, four different varieties of cricket and some tiny fried frogs.

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Bugs are her business, and business is good

Parked most evenings on tourist-packed Khao San Road, Rawiwan's pushcart is accentuated with two stylish battery-powered lights displaying her vivid victuals. 

Rawiwan buys her bugs in Bangkok's Klong Toey market, where one kilo of grasshoppers -- "takataen" in Thai -- costs her 400 baht.

"They are dead already, not alive," so she fries all her insects in vegetable oil. 

When she hands bugs to a customer, Rawiwan sprays on some soy sauce, to zing the piquancy. Some vendors sprinkle salt and vinegar.

Customers often like to eat fried insects while drinking beer, as a healthy and exotic replacement for popcorn or peanuts, she says. 

Scorpions are an acquired taste. Crunchy on the outside and gooey in the middle. Bugs take only a few minutes fry in a wok. To cook enough to stock her pushcart for the evening, however, takes about two hours. 

She prefers to sell insects instead of fruit, noodles or other common food. "I think it's amazing, wonderful. Some people say, 'Oooooh, it's very amazing.' Some like to see. I think it's funny too." 

Rawiwan comes from Suphanburi province, just north of Bangkok, and ate bugs when she was a child.

Silk worms taste "like peanuts" but "grasshoppers are spiky," she says, giggling. 

Some of her competitors also sell big, black, fried scorpions, or termites, spiders, cicadas and other creatures. 

If a lot of customers flock to her pushcart, Rawiwan can pocket 1,000 baht profit in one night, which is "a good business" that she can do by herself.

Are you addicted to insects? Tell us why you can't stop munching in the comments box below. 

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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