It's a bug's life
It’s a bug’s life
Love them or loathe them, they’re big business and they’re here to stay
- Published: 9/05/2010 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: Spectrum
Insects have been a food source for people around the world for thousands of years. And while entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is uncommon in Western countries, it continues to be popular in developing regions such as Africa, Central and South America and Asia. There are about 2,000 species around the world that can be safely consumed.
In Asia, insects are popular in Cambodia, China and Vietnam. In Thailand, locals eat about 150 types of insect, including crickets, silk worms and dung beetles. Edible insects are readily available at markets or from street vendors. They are popular not only for their nutritional content, but also for their crunchy texture and taste.
Almost every foreigner walking past a cart filled with trays containing different kinds of fried insect finds it hard to resist pausing to take a closer look, and wondering just what the strange delicacies are.
The more adventurous may be offered a free sample by the bug seller or even a customer, wanting to see their reaction.
“Many Thais love to eat insects, but some won’t touch them because they think they’re dirty, unhygienic and carry disease. From time to time, people say this to me, but if I can convince them to just try one, they usually stop complaining,” said Mr Vinai, who has been selling insects along Sukhumvit Road for many years.
“There’s a perception – and this is even stated on various websites – that insects are only eaten by bargirls from the North or Northeast of Thailand. But it’s totally false, because middle- and upper-class people, some driving expensive cars, often stop and buy insects.”
Mr Vinai usually arrives with his food cart in Sukhumvit Soi 24 at around 10pm, and carries on selling his insects until 2am.
“Business is good here because most of my customers are regulars, employed by nearby hotels. When they finish their shift, they come to buy insects,” Mr Vinai said.
“I send my friends to buy the insects at Klong Toey wholesale market, and I keep them in a refrigerator, but someone else fries them for me,” he added.
Mr Samran, a frequent customer, said: “I like to eat insects very much. They are cheap, delicious, nutritious and also good for the libido. After finishing work at 10pm, I stop here on the way home and buy about 20 baht of insects.”
He, like many others, usually eats his insects on the spot, while chatting with Mr Vinai and other customers.
Mrs Lumyai, who has been selling insects on Khao San Road for about 20 years, also buys her products at Klong Toey market, and goes there in the early morning. She cooks the insects herself.
“I sell from 6pm until 2am. My customers are equally split between foreigners and Thais. They all like them a lot, and I’ve had no complaints.”
She said that the best selling insects are grasshoppers, silkworms, ants and crickets.
“However, because the political unrest is keeping tourists away, business has been way down in recent months, not only for me, but other vendors as well,” Mrs Lumyai complained.
A visit to Klong Toey market is quite an experience. There are many vendors selling a wide variety of fresh produce, including vegetables, poultry, live fish, yellow frogs and edible insects.
Mrs Sakhon has been wholesaling insects with two of her relatives for about 10 years.
“I open at midnight and close around 9am. Three other wholesale shops nearby open at the same time, but close before 6am.
“We sell about 100kg of insects every day. Our customers are street vendors who come themselves or who place orders by phone, which we deliver to them,” Mrs Sakhon said.
She sells 12 types of insects from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as Thailand.
“We have an agent who buys them for us at markets like Talat Rong Kluea in Sa Kaeo province bordering Cambodia and also in Mae Sot in Tak province, near the Burmese border.
“We sometimes buy insects at Talat Thai in Pathum Thani province. You often see Burmese and Cambodian people delivering insects there.”
She said one of the most popular Thai insects is called sading (a small cricket), which is bred on farms in Lop Buri, Khon Kaen, Roi Et and Korat.
“I sell dead insects, but when they are delivered to Talat Rong Kluea, which is the biggest insect market in Thailand, only live insects fetch a good price. If they’re dead they fetch much less, and sometimes can’t be sold at all.
“The insects are caught mainly in Cambodia and no poison is used, as some claim, because the traders at the market won’t really buy dead insects.”
If you go to Phitsanulok in northern Thailand, a visit to the Ruammalang mobile edible insect cart found in front of the Rachaphruk Hotel is well worth your time. They have been selling various types of insects for almost 22 years.
“We display edible insects on trays, which guarantees that many tourists, especially foreigners, stop and try them,” said Thongchart Nusu, who started the business about 25 years ago, but is now making sausages and meatballs, and has passed the insect business on to his 22 year-old daughter, Ms Ratee.
“I open at 4pm and close at 11pm every day. We wash the insects with water and let them dry. Then we boil them and deep fry them in clean oil until crispy, and season with sugar, salt, Magi and so on. We cook them every day, so they’re fresh every day. We also tin our insects for sale locally, but we’re not yet ready to export them,” Ms Ratee said.
“We’ve became a tourist attraction. Many tour groups, whether Thai or foreign come to our place to see the cooking process and to taste them as well. Most people like the taste and buy a tin.
“However, business has dropped compared to four years ago. It started to pick up again a few months ago, but after the political situation worsened, especially in Bangkok, business has gone down again,” Ms Ratee said.
She said that three or four years ago she could make 20,000 baht a day, but now she makes less than 8,000 baht a day.
“I sell about 10 kinds of insect,” she said. “They originate from various places such as bamboo worms from Laos and China, Bombay locusts from Talat Rong Kluea and giant water bugs from Burma and Cambodia.
“I get most of the insects from Cambodia, but in Thailand I can get bamboo worms from the North, silkworms from the silk factories in Phetchabun and crickets from Khon Kaen.
“The most popular are the bamboo worms, silkworms, Bombay locusts and the giant water bugs. The most expensive are bamboo worms, and I buy most of the insects from Talat Rong Kluea,” Miss Ratee said.
“I’m trying to improve the business and attract new customers with innovations such as taking pictures of customers and printing them as labels for the tins of insects. I sell two types of tinned insects. One has bamboo worms for 100 baht, and the other is mixed insects for 50 baht. We do the tinning at home.”
She said that about 90% of her foreign customers come from France, with the rest from other European countries and the US. As for Asian tourists, some are from South Korea and Japan, but there are very few compared to the Europeans. She has never seen a Chinese tourist at her stall.
Mrs Rujirej sells edible insects in the southern city of Hat Yai. She has a small shop with a few tables near to the bus station.
“I’ve been selling insects for about eight years. Before that I worked as a labourer on building sites. I sell about 10 kinds of insects these days, down from 15 in the past. Business started to drop about four years ago because of competition and fewer tourists,” Mrs Rujirej said.
“I used to sell at least 80kg of silkworms, 50kg of Bombay locusts and 7,000 to 8,000 giant water bugs, but now I can sell only about 10kg of silkworms, 5kg of Bombay locusts and no giant water bugs at all because they are too expensive.
“I buy everything at Talat Rong Kluea. I used to go there myself because it was worthwhile but since the business is not so profitable the insects are delivered to us on the public bus.”
Salern Mui, who lives in Cambodia, has been selling insects at Talat Rong Kluea for 20 years. She crosses the border every morning and returns in the evening.
“This market is the biggest for edible insects in Thailand, with more than 100 stalls, including 50 big ones. About 90% of the insects sold here come from Cambodia and the rest are local,” she said.
“Bombay locusts are the most popular insects, normally available from May to September, but as they are very popular, they’re stored in freezers and sold all year round. Bombay locusts come mainly from Pailin province in Cambodia.
“As with other edible insects, Bombay locusts are caught mainly at night. People in Pailin catch Bombay locusts with their bare hands in cornfields. Many people, sometimes hundreds, will catch them because it’s extra income for them.”
Mrs Salern said that most of the insects from Cambodia are still alive when they reach the market. Dead or spoiled insects will turn red and are not saleable.
NOT ENTIRELY RISK-FREE
The Ministry of Public Health warns that those with allergies or asthma should avoid eating insects because they may contain high levels of histamine, a protein involved in many allergic reactions. In the case of a serious allergy, the result may be fatal.
Dr Suphan Srithamma, a spokesmen for the Ministry of Public Health, says that the consumption of insects in Thailand is increasing. Originally, insects were consumed mainly by country people who grilled or fried them, or used them in salads or soups, but nowadays insects are eaten as a snack.
However, even though insects are high in nutrients, they can be contaminated with pesticides.
The Thai Health Promotion Foundation also warns that people who have allergies avoid eating silkworms and wasp grubs, because they may result in fatal allergic reactions. And several medical practitioners contacted by Spectrum warned that patients with allergies should avoid eating fried insects.