The first insect I ever ate was a cricket. It was dry, had unusually long legs and smelled funny. But with a bit of encouragement from a few persuasive drunks and one pushy cricket seller, I managed to swallow it whole. Looking back, Bangkok’s Khao San Road wasn’t really the best place to start eating bugs. The streets were dirty, the insects weren’t cleaned properly and they were almost exclusively sold to tourists who were too drunk or too blissfully unaware to care.
To be honest, I didn’t really taste cricket that day—I’d swallowed it under peer pressure—but in the weeks that followed, I developed a liking for it. I learned that there is a proper way to consume bugs and I discovered far more exciting and delicious critters than cricket. So let me break it down for anyone who’d like to try eating insects and other creepy-crawlies.
CRICKET Almost everyone in Southeast Asia is obsessed with crickets. They are easy to find, make for crisp evening snacks and aren’t nearly as daunting as other insects once you remove their legs. Crickets are the best insects to get started with; for me, they proved to be gateway bugs.
But that first time in Thailand, I obviously made a lot of mistakes. For starters, I spent THB50 (₹ 100) on a handful of fried crickets stuffed in a tiny plastic bag, when they cost THB50—100 per half-kilo. Crucially, I bought them off a man with a blue plastic tray. These men with trays—let’s call them freelancers—aren’t really insect sellers, but in most cases, local drunks gathering enough money for a drink. Now I have no problem with how someone funds their tipple, but I must mention that the freelancers either buy from an insect seller, or get entrepreneurial and catch their own crickets. The latter aren’t cleaned the way they ought to be. My stupidest mistake was swallowing a cricket whole. Cricket legs are choking hazards, and they need to be removed—something that most freelancers fail to mention.
Crickets are ubiquitous and easily found in the markets of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The best place to get a cricket is from someone selling them in bulk; if you see locals shopping at their stall, even better. In Bangkok, buy them from the vendors who set up shop a couple of blocks away from Khao San Road. And I strongly recommend eating them roasted.
So what do crickets taste like? A lot like the oil they’ve been fried in, if you eat just one. The way to truly enjoy cricket is to shove a handful into your mouth and savour their earthy, nutty bite. If you’re still wary of eating bugs, there’s always cricket pasta; the insect is ground into pasta flour so you won’t have to see the bits. See, I told you they were the best for beginners.
SCORPION Yes, I know, scorpions aren’t insects, they’re arachnids. But they’re creepy and they crawl, so they’re on my list. It is easy to find scorpions sold by freelancers, but these are overpriced and burnt to a crisp. Scorpions roam the streets of any open market in Thailand and Cambodia, and they are consumed in many ways: grilled, roasted, fried or sautéed with greens. You’re likely to find them with their stingers attached, as their poison is nullified when exposed to heat, making it safe to consume. But scorpions that are eaten alive have the stingers removed.
I liked scorpion, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for another round. When over-fried, it tastes like powdery potato chips, but done right, it has a pleasant, fishy taste, rather like prawn or lobster. Try and eat scorpion at a mid-range restaurant or look out for a roadside stall frequented by locals. In Cambodia, you could also try night markets in Siem Reap or The New Singapore City restaurant in Phnom Penh (Street 368). On the street, an uncooked scorpion would cost about KHR615 (₹ 10), a fried trio around KHR3,075 (₹ 60). My restaurant order set me back KHR36,900 (₹ 600), but they were much larger than the ones on the street.
SILKWORM PUPA The first time I ate silkworm pupa was on a food tour in Cambodia. Like cricket, it is easy to come by. The locals fry it as a snack, boil it to eat with rice or eat it steamed, on toothpicks. The food tour was in and around Angkor Night Market (angkornightmarket.com), and I’d waited patiently for the tail end of the tour: insects and fruit. It was my second week of eating bugs, and I was feeling a little cocky. I’d dined on cricket, scorpion, grasshopper, ants. The bowl of silkworm pupae in front of me was going to be a piece of cake, I thought.
Now, I’m no culinary chauvinist. I believe insects deserve their place on the menu: after the mains and before dessert. Should all the meat in the world disappear overnight, I’d gladly supplant it with insects. But the one item that could challenge my belief system and shutter my open-mindedness is the foul taste of silkworm pupae.
Have you ever been in possession of a packet of oyster mushrooms that you kept pushing to the back of the fridge to make space for new food, until one month later, when a friend politely inquires about the stink? It’s that coupled with the texture of bar peanuts that have been wasting away for years.
But in case you’d like to try mouldy bar-nut-mushrooms—I’m sorry, silkworm pupae—they’re on offer in just about any open market in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most small and mid-range restaurants stock them too; I tried them for the second time in a nondescript eatery in the Hang Gai neighbourhood of Hanoi. A word of advice: start with one. Because the last thing you want to see on a food tour is some guy spitting out a mouthful on the side.
TARANTULA In Siem Reap, I managed to find a few similarly inclined diners, and we visited Bugs Café (bugs-cafe.e-monsite.com), an insect tapas restaurant and bar. Fried tarantula is a delicacy in Cambodia, so we ordered a batter-fried plateful with sweet chilli sauce, aioli and mango chutney (KHR32,030 or ₹520).
I’d always been afraid of spiders, particularly big hairy ones, and the thought of eating one made me more anxious than I’ve ever been. I started with a leg. Within seconds, my tarantula had disappeared. Of all the creepy-crawlies I’d tried, this was by far my favourite. It’s the only one I crave. The legs have the crunch of fried chicken; the meaty body tastes like soft-shelled crab. Coupled with tangy chutney, this was one of the best meals I’d eaten all month.
I’d recommend Bugs Café to anyone who is curious about eating insects, but too squeamish to try them off the street. Owners Marjolaine Blouzard and her cousin Davy are particular about the way the insects are cleaned and cooked, and the spices that complement an insect’s flavour. They’re also good at pairing insects with salad and fruit.
FRUIT SALAD WITH FLYING ANT AND CRICKET If you want to eat bugs as a photo op, it’s likely an insect fruit salad will actually look pretty. At Bugs Café, my order had papaya, mango, banana and apple with a sprinkling of cricket and flying ant on top. The entire dish was doused in caramel, which drowned out the flavour of bug without losing the crunch. The flying ant and cricket fruit salad would set you back KHR20.020 (₹ 325), and by the time you’re done, you’d have eaten over a dozen crickets without really tasting them.
I wouldn’t recommend an insect salad over discovering the rich and varied flavour of Asia’s insects. But if you ever have to pick between fishing a cricket out of a blue tray held by a freelancer and caramel insects with fruit, I hope you choose the latter. ■