When we moved to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand from the UK I was very interested to get to the bottom of whether people really eat bugs here or whether it was some over hyped nonsense from horrified westerners. Several years down the road into my bug eating odyssey I think I’m getting somewhere.
Thailand really is, as everybody says, an endlessly interesting and unusual country. It certainly isn’t any different when it comes to food. It is literally all over the place, from street stalls and food hawkers to world class restaurants and everything in between. Our “market food tasting” is the most popular tour for all our holiday guests. People also eat frequently at all different times of day, although main meals are taken relatively early.
My lovely rice and pork breakfast place, just outside of where I’m sitting now, fire up the stoves at 4 in the morning for the first breakfast customers at 6am. I usually pop in at about 8am when it’s in full swing and the owner is serving up to 60 customers at once. Eating breakfast out every day here for 30p is in itself worth moving the other side of the world for. Eating a steaming bowl of pork noodle soup with fresh green coriander, ginger and red chillies, overlooking mountains and rice fields really is worth getting out of bed for.
So if food is so good here, and customers so discerning why do they eat bugs? Popular opinion might be “the poor buggers haven’t got anything else to eat”; wrong, wrong and wrong again. There’s tons to eat, inexpensive and plentiful, the place is heaving with food, the quality and variety of which makes most of us foreigners giddy. So can bugs be that good?
The first time I came across a proper hard core bug stall was in my home town of Chiang Mai (the epicentre of all that is good and interesting about food) at the back of the night bazaar. In the gloom, behind the cheap noodle bars is a proper big boys bug stall. No clean jars of meal worms that you can buy in duty free to take home and scare your mates with here. This is the real article. Large deep fried crickets, huge water beetles and nasty looking roaches all black and glistening. I bought a big selection, took them home and ate them. They tasted like you think a deep fried bug might. Not a million miles away from the small brown shrimps I ate growing up in Southend caught in the Thames estuary. It would certainly take some getting used to though.
The ones I didn’t like were the huge spinney crickets. My uncle once told me he could eat light bulbs, a trick he learnt in the army apparently. I would imagine it’s much the same experience, you have to be very careful but you still cut your tongue anyway.
The ones I really like though I buy from a smiley lady at a small local market up towards the mountains. Its a market where you can buy the most bizarre and frightening of food you can imagine (but that’s for another day). These are small brown crickets that she has in a big net box. She catches a handful in a small net and fries them in front of you with kaffir lime leaves and pops them in a bag for 5 Baht (about 8p). They’re slightly salty, pleasingly crunchy and flavoured with lime. They are nice by themselves, but with a cold glass of beer at the end of the day they are better than any packet of crisps or peanuts I’ve tasted (and I love crisps).
People here eat bugs like I do; never thought I’d be saying that a couple of years ago. Not all the time and not because they’re starving but because they taste very good, especially with cold beer and especially fresh from the market from the lady with the smiley face.