Canned insects could be the next killer snack food, not to mention an unconventional way for some villagers to supplement their incomes. Grasshoppers anyone?
Story By Nilubol Pornpitagpan
Thanks to canned food technology there’s been an increasing number of famous Thai dishes sold in cans. Nowadays, one can find steamed rice with various curries ready for serving with the flip of a lid. Fermented fish (pla ra) and famous som tam , thanks to sterilised cans, travel far and wide as exports.
Thanks to a rather unusual research project, insects may be hitting the food shelves next-in cans, of course.
Grasshoppers, locusts, true water beetles, mole crickets and plain crickets, red ant eggs and silk worm pupae are being produced by Sakon Nakhon Agricultural Research and Training Centre (SARTC), which introduced them at food fairs a year ago.
“We introduced canned insects at a fair in Sakon Nakhon, late in 1998, but they didn’t stir the interest of the people since consuming insects was common there. But when they were brought to a fair in Bangkok last year, the supply of 300 cans was quickly sold out,” said Ratana Koomklang, head of Policy and Information for the SARTC, located in Phang Khon district.
“The buyers probably saw them as exotic. Some might have wanted to try a new product. Then word of mouth helped spread awareness [of the product]. The demand for canned insects began to grow.”
She says she even got an order from a company wanting to export the product to Japan.
Insect consumption has been a long-standing tradition among folks in the Northeast. It began either as a response to the scarcity of meat or as a tasty snack that, over the centuries, became daily fare.
With the influx of Isan labourers migrating to Bangkok, city dwellers first began getting a taste of this indigenous cuisine two decades ago. Vendors selling various fried insects became a common sight-and their treats proved popular.
Now modern studies show that insects are a good source of protein.
“People nowadays are more health-conscious. Canned insects can be a perfect alternative,” said Ms Ratana, adding that “insects are more widely consumed in the world today.”
The SARTC’s work focuses on how to preserve various local agricultural products when there is a surplus of supply. The centre has carried on intensive research on various fruits and has produced wine, juice, jams and canned foods.
The goal is to transfer this know-how to villagers so they can earn extra money.
At one point, SARTC began to consider insects, of which there are an abundance during certain seasons of the year.
“Usually, insects are sold on a daily basis, either fresh or cooked, at the market. There is always a surplus of them. We thought if we could preserve them as canned food, we could expand the market for their consumption. They could be sold far away from the village,” said Ms Ratana.
Study began two years ago on how to can the insects. Different approaches with different styles of cooking were tried before the process was perfected.
Villagers in the neighbourhood near the centre trap the insects at night, using filtered fluorescent lights and sell them to the centre in the morning. There, the insects are washed in water and left to drain. Then they are stir-fried in a pan, and special herbs and salt are added.
“Herbs are added to subdue the insect’s strong smell. We use ginger, Kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass,” said Ms Ratana.
Cooked insects are roasted in an oven for 30 minutes. When the process is completed, the insects are divided by type and the herbs are removed.
“From our tests, we’ve found that the herbs left in a can for a long time can change and can produce a lot of gas, so they must be removed,” explained Ms Ratana.
The cooked insects are put in cans and weighed, and then the can is sealed and sent through the sterilisation process. When complete, the label is glued to the can and the product is ready to be sold.
The process for red ant eggs is different. The eggs are washed and the ants are screened out. The eggs are briefly boiled-for 30 seconds-and then preserved with a salt solution.
So far, only six kinds of insects have been produced as canned food. A mixed insect package is available
The village of Ban Dong Sawan, in Phang Khon district of Sakon Nakhon, is rich with insects. Being only a few kilometres away from the SARTC, it is the main supplier of insects for the centre’s canning efforts.
According to Phrachan Pichai, “insect trapping” began over a decade ago when a villager discovered he could make good money selling insects. He “trapped” the critters by using a fluorescent lamp to attract them.
His neighbours took note, and soon there were many in the business of trapping, which proved a profitable way to supplement their rice farming income.
The villagers found the most efficient way to catch insects was to employ blue-violet fluorescent light as “bait”. The lamp is attached to a wooden pole and held up high off the ground. Another fluorescent lamp is placed near the ground shining on bowls of water. The blue-violet light lures insects to the trapping area. The reflection in the water below in the bowl tricks the winged creatures into flying down-and into the trap.
Unlucky insects who fall victim to the scheme are collected in the morning.
Since the lights are quite expensive-each costing 500 baht-the villagers tried using a normal fluorescent lights as bait, but this did not work.
“We also tried wrapping the lights in blue-violet tracing paper, but that didn’t work either,” said Ms Phrachan.
Having perfected their methods, there’s now an abundant supply of crickets, mole crickets, true water beetles, water bugs, and termites.
Grasshoppers are caught on farms, while silkworm pupae are taken from their cocoons after the cocoons are steamed and the raw silk is removed.
During the “high season” (generally at the end of the rainy season), villagers can earn more than 10,000 baht monthly from selling insects.
The SARTC buys them at 100 baht per kilogramme, and up to 120 baht per kg for red ant eggs.
Some households set up three traps around their house.
During the low season, trappers harvest only a few grammes per day. Winged creatures are also scarce on rainy or windy nights.
Since the SARTC does not produce canned insects on a daily basis, Ms Phrachan says she sells her supply at the market.
“There is always demand for insects. Sometimes insect trappers bring them to exchange for other products at the market,” said Ms Phrachan.
At other times, when there are temple festivals, for example, she says she sells insects after treating them with salt and MSG (monosodium glutamate).
Every time, she says, the snacks are sold out.
Ms Ratana said SARTC’s aim was not to mass-produce their products. The research work was to gain knowledge in food preservation and then train local villagers to do the work themselves.
Villagers and visitors from both near and far have visited the centre to learn the process, but extra support is needed for the canning and sterilisation process.
Products from the SARTC are sold on a limited basis, and are available at the Public Relations Department at Rajamangala Institute in Bangkok’s Teves area.
The centre recently received an order from a company seeking to export the canned critters to Japan, but the scarcity of insects at the moment is delaying matters.
Farmers in the North have offered to sell their insects to the centre, but so far have been turned down.
“The key to good taste with the canned insects lies in their freshness. A rotten insect can damage the whole batch. That’s why we’re very careful and take only insects from the neighbourhood, to ensure the quality of the product,” explained Ms Ratana.
“Insects can be stored in cool storage for a few days. But long transportation times leave the delicate insects in poor shape,” she added.
Tasty tidbitsWhat do people say of the canned goods?
“Umm, smells good,” said Lu Phuttasen, housewife and farmer in Phang Khon.
Between chews, she added, “The texture is tough but it’s delicious. I can taste a trace of some herbs.”
When informed of the ingredients, she reveals her own home recipe: “Usually I just stir-fry insects with some salt and seasoning (monosodium glutamate). Next time I’ll add some herbs.”
Her son, Teh, loves the different flavours offered by the canned creatures. After his third mouthful of true water beetles, the young boy said, rather shyly, that it was much better than what his mother cooked.
Rungrawan Sakamura, another housewife, said she liked the texture and the aroma of the herbs but the taste of the canned insects was too mild for native Isan tongues.
“For Isan tastes, it must be more salty,” she said.
Will insect consumption effect the ecology of the region?
Ms Ratana from the centre said insects have certain life cycles.
“After the breeding season they die in large numbers. But we’re careful about it. We don’t produce canned insects during their breeding season. We produce 50 to 60 kilogrammes of all kinds of insect a few days during a certain period of the year.”
She noted that farmers had started breeding crickets and red ants.
Ms Ratana says there was room to experiment with other insects and newtastes remained to be explored.
If canned insects prove popular, research should be carried out on insect farming, she said.
“I think there’s a possibility of using insects as feed for animals, but that would take time.”
She adds, “We’re glad we can produce something for exporting.”
© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2000