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Unravelling Street Food: Fried Insects or Phàt Má-laeng

by Brian S.

According to a recent United Nations report, there are more than 1,900 edible insect species on the planet, many of which happen to be a staple in the diet of the inhabitants of 80 per cent of the nations on said planet. Experts say that up to two billion humans eat insects, ranging from ants to tarantulas, either raw or cooked, on a regular basis. One of those nations is the Land of Smiles.


Due to the “yuck” factor, insects are rarely considered to be food in the developed world. What most Westerners don’t know is that we are already consuming insects, or at least parts of them, practically every day. Food laws in most Western countries do not prohibit the presence of insects in food products. They do however, limit the quantity. For example, in America, eight ounces of packaged raisins are allowed to contain up to 10 fruit flies and as many as 35 of their eggs; and in any type of pasta, anything up to one insect fragment per gram of pasta is considered to be acceptable!


The truth is that eating most insects won’t hurt you, and in many cases, it actually adds to the nutrition of whatever food they snuck into. One of the most compelling reasons for eating a bagful of stir-fried crickets is that it’s a healthy alternative to other sources of protein, such as fish, chicken, pork and beef. In addition, insects are packed with fiber, healthy fats, B complex vitamins and essential minerals. All one need do is overcome the notion that eating bugs is disgusting. Granted, that’s not an easy thing to do, but it may help if you remember that lobsters, crabs, oysters and mussels were all, at one time, despised and considered to be “poor-man’s food” in most Western nations. Today, those items are expensive delicacies.


The consumption of insects in Thailand is believed to have started in the Northeast, which has traditionally been the poorest region of Siam. Insects being readily available, edible, easy to prepare, inexpensive and tasty to the Thais became a favorite local snack, as well as a cheap substitute for protein. As the Northeasterners’ migrated to Thailand’s larger metropolises in search of employment, the cottage industry of phàt má-laeng travelled with them. Now practically every soi features a mobile bug buffet. It will vary from cart to cart, and might include anything from silk worms to scorpions or crickets to cockroaches (not the kind that scuttle about the kitchen). Two of Thailand’s favourite edible insects are raised on farms in the North and the Northeast. In fact, cricket and palm weevil larva farming has developed into a significant source of income for many Thai farmers. In 2013, approximately 20,000 farms toiled to collectively produce a staggering 7,500 tons of insects for local consumption.


Bamboo Worms or Nŏn Pài: Most edible insect’s iron content is equal to, or higher than, the same amount of beef. The bamboo worm, which hails from Thailand’s Northern provinces, has an even higher ratio of iron than normal. Also known as the Bamboo Caterpillar or Rot Fai Duan (Express Train), Bamboo Worms have been described as being “delicious” and tasting like “mushroom-flavored Lays potato chips”.


Crickets or Jîng Rèet: Packed with nutrients, the crickets, which are raised all across Northern Thailand, are arguably the most popular fried insect in Thailand for snacking. After first removing the legs, which are said to be irritating, many Thais enhance the taste of a fried cricket with a splash of Golden Mountain Sauce, a popular commercially-made local condiment, followed by a dusting of Thai pepper powder. To me, they were just salty and crunchy, not unlike a plain potato chip. Some enthusiasts claim that crickets taste like popcorn when they’re fried in butter instead of oil.


Giant Water Bugs or Maeng Da Na: Most of the water bugs sold in Thailand are imported from Kalasin and Si Sa Ket Provinces. As the largest of Thailand’s fried insects, the Giant Water Bug, whether steamed, fried or eaten raw, is rapidly approaching delicacy status. That’s partially because its flesh is large enough to make small fillets, but mostly because of its taste. After being de-shelled and de-winged, the entire insect, which to some has the aroma of a green apple, is eaten. The thorax (chest) has a texture reminiscent of fish. Some say it tastes a bit like a “fishy, salty melon combined with banana,” and to others it reminds them of scallops. Meanwhile, the abdomen, below the thorax, has been described as tasting “like scrambled eggs”.


Grasshoppers or Dták Dtaen: Before cooking, the intestines and wings must be removed and the torso washed in clean water. Despite the fact that the texture of grasshoppers is “a little spiky,” they taste a bit like “nutty chicken” and are even better when seasoned with a little salt, garlic and lemon. In terms of the amount of protein they contain, grasshoppers are at the head of the class.


Palm Weevil Larvae or Dàk Dâe Faa: Eaten raw or cooked, these soft-bodied larvae or “grubs” are one of Mother Nature’s best energy providers. Each grub is chock full of protein, potassium and calcium and, gram-for-gram, each one is loaded with more polyunsaturated fatty acids (the good kind) than any type of poultry or fish. Their texture has been described as being “rich and buttery” or “creamy” and that they taste “like coconut” when consumed raw. After cooking, the Palm Weevil Larvae’s flavour is claimed to be not unlike “sweet bacon”.


Silkworm Pupae or Dàk Dâe Măai: Puffy in appearance and ovoid in shape, the Silkworm Pupae, most of which are brought down from Petchabun Province, allegedly tastes “like peanuts” after cooking. Besides being rich in protein, Silkworm Pupae are an excellent source of calcium, magnesium, B complex vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.


Spiders or Maeng Mum: Fried spiders are a delicacy that the Thais nicked from Cambodia. Called A-ping in Khmer, the spider, which is a species of Tarantula, is known to be high in both iron and zinc. Yes, the entire body of the spider is eaten, and aficionados state that it tastes likes an “earthy version of shellfish—crab and lobster in particular.”


Scorpions or Maeng Bpòng: Like the spiders, scorpions are technically not an insect (they’re members of the arachnid family), and a major food source for many nations. In Thailand, they are skewered and fried or roasted. Eaters claim they have a “bitter and vaguely fishy” flavour, sort of like a “soft shell crab”. If you’re concerned about the venom, the heat from cooking renders the toxin harmless, so order them well done.