Craving the Crawlies

Craving the Crawlies
No use complaining about bugs in your soup in Thailand. Edible insects are in—and big business
BY ROBERT HORN Bangkok

When Tongchart Nusu, a food distributor in Phitsanulok, Thailand, yanks open the heavy steel door of his cold-storage locker, you get the expected burst of snowy frost—along with a moist, overpowering, rancid stench. Nostrils flaring, Tongchart draws the mist into his lungs, this sweet aroma of hard work, money, success: the odor of bugs.

Tongchart’s freezer holds 10 tons of boiled and freeze-dried giant water bugs, dung beetles, grasshoppers and a fine assortment of succulent worms. The 40-year-old former butcher and noodle salesman is president of United Insects of Phitsanulok, and that, he says, makes him the king bee in Thailand’s estimated $50 million-a-year edible bug industry. “Business is so good that I don’t have to deliver,” he says. “If you want bugs, you come to me.”

Come and get ‘em: bugs are the hot, new culinary item in Thailand. Middle-class Thais in Bangkok are buzzing over the exoskeletal treats: “They have a rich texture, and the flavors are like nothing you’ve ever tasted,” says Nusara Thaitawat, a former journalist and the author of Cuisine of Cambodia. And the business is creating a chain of modest wealth for farmers and sellers, making insects a commodity distributed across Thailand as efficiently as, say, artichokes in California. Tongchart supplies wholesalers as far north as Chiang Rai and as far south as Hat Yai. Some of them, in turn, are exporting to places like Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. The meat and potatoes, so to speak, of the insect biz are grasshoppers, beetles and bamboo worms. Some delectables, such as spiders, remain specialty items. “They’re big, black and hairy,” says Nusara, and she ought to know: she once enjoyed tarantulas on a stick. “They’re good food, but let’s face it. Bugs have bad p.r.”

Lots of people eat insects: nearly 3,000 ethnic groups in 113 countries, according to Professor Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, a biologist at the National University of Mexico. Some 1,400 kinds of bugs are known to be edible, and considering that the earth may have millions of insect species—they are the world’s dominant class of animals—there are many more ripe for munching.

In Thailand, insects used to be popular only in the poor north and northeast provinces. But as farmers and laborers migrated to the cities during the economic boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, they brought their yearning for six- and eight-legged creatures with them. Bangkok natives were reintroduced to the wonders of savory creepy-crawlies and liked what they tasted. As soon as Kiam Poopaduang parks his pushcart full of insects outside the city’s Nana red-light district each night—its sign reads “Amazing Thai Food”—motorcycle taxi drivers and bar girls start to swarm. Four years ago Kiam was a rice farmer in the northeast. “I barely made enough to feed myself,” he says. Now, on a good night, he can make $80 in profit. Somkid, a dancer in a nearby go-go bar, says her foreign boyfriends-for-the-night are revolted when they see her scarfing down scarab beetles. But as she plucks the legs off a locust so she can suck out its eggs, Somkid claims her dietary habits have never cost her a customer. “Why should it? They’re delicious,” she says. “Foreigners eat some pretty strange things, too.”

Thais eat about 20 different varieties of insects, but the best selling—the Big Mac of the bug business—is by far the takkatan, or grasshopper. “They taste a little like shrimp, and they’re always clean,” says Weerayuth Srisook, who is one of five wholesalers who supply more than 400 pushcart vendors and 30 or so restaurant owners. Originally from Khon Kaen in the northeast, Weerayuth, 25, with a sixth-grade education, started selling insects when he came to Bangkok five years ago. He grosses about $1,000 a day, clears about $225, and says business is getting better every year. The only cloud on the horizon: Thailand is running out of bugs. A lot are being consumed, but most have fallen prey to rural overuse of insecticides. (That has caused an ecological imbalance: when the insect population dipped, so did that of birds and reptiles that feed on them. And as those are natural predators of rodents, the rat population has exploded—and no one’s predicting an imminent rat-meat craze.)

But shortage is opportunity for humans, too. In the village of Baan Nawng Yang Tai, 54-year-old Tongdaeng Tewa-sae is looking forward to the day when he won’t have to break his back farming rice on his 8 hectares. In front of his clapboard home are eight neatly cut sections of cement sewer pipe. His future is in those tubes: two months ago, Tongdaeng and the 84 families in the village began raising crickets as an enterprise. With minimal investment for sewer pipes, chicken feed and breeding crickets, and help from university entomologists and a self-sufficiency project sponsored by the royal family, the village will be able to propagate 3-5 kg of crickets in each tube every 45 days. Tongdaeng figures he’ll make $900 this year, about what he made from growing rice. “If this works out, I’ll buy more pipes,” he says. “I could get rich.”

The market is ready. When Tongdaeng’s crickets are big enough to eat, he gathers them up and delivers them to “bug king” Tongchart. With business still brisk, there is always room for more in his malodorous freezer. And Tongchart is already dreaming up new ventures, like canning bugs and exporting them to new markets. Maybe even to Europe or America. Maybe. Or maybe that is better left as food for thought.