It was my last night in Bangkok, and I was spending it staring at a pile of at least five different fried bugs. To the locals, it was just another stall at a night market that sold evening munchies. For me, it looked like a mass graveyard!
“Here, have some crickets,” Chang, my Thai companion, said as he held out a plastic bag full of fried crickets. “They go well with a cold one in hand,” he added, as expected from someone nicknamed after the most popular local beer. Steeling myself, I took a handful of very dead crickets and quickly threw them into my mouth.
I have to say, it didn’t taste as gross I expected it to be. The crickets had been heavily salted and deep fried to a crisp, it was not that much different with eating potato chips. But the idea of eating bugs was so unsettling to me, my eyes involuntarily teared up. “OMG are you crying? What a crybaby!” Chang started laughing and the lady vendor joined him in a gleeful unison. Sunan, the jerk’s angelic girlfriend, gave me a sympathetic pat in the back. “There, there. It’s just a bug,” she said.
Feelers Out For Sustainable Food
After I came back to Kuala Lumpur, I asked my Southeast Asian gang on what they felt about eating bugs. “I’d do it for Fear Factor,” Miguel (another one with a beer brand for a name) from the Philippines answered with a grin. “So many other sources of food, why should we eat bugs? It’s disgusting!” said Isham from Malaysia. “Maybe back then during Dutch colonial time,” opined Yudhi, my fellow Indonesian.
Many would share Isham’s sentiment and question why should we consider consuming bugs in the first place. Living in a region where food stock is aplenty, we never really think about running out of food. But after reading an article about the inevitable food crisis brought on by factory farming, I was compelled to think more of mindful eating.
“Come on, Ari. You and I would sometimes have both nasi lemak with beef rendang AND roti canai with chicken curry for breakfast. You’re one to talk about mindful eating,” Isham rolled his eyes to my great irritation (I don’t like to be reminded how much of a glutton I am). But while it’s true that I love my meat, in the back of my mind I always know that factory livestock is responsible for 50% of the world’s man-made greenhouse gases.
Enter entomophagy (fancy word for insect-eating). Bugs don’t take up much space as livestock, they consume less food and contribute minimal greenhouse gases. Touted as the new superfood by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, bugs are not only chock-full of protein, they also have fibre (which meats don’t provide) and important nutrients like vitamin B12 (which plants don’t produce). But these things mean nothing to me if I can’t find even down fried crickets that taste just like my favourite potato chips.
Craving For Creepy Crawlies
“It’s just a bug,” Sunan’s voice echoed in my head. She was right, of course, it was just a bug. Why did it bother me so much? It’s not like eating insects is unheard of in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines, but the practice is often associated with tribal traditions or something that you’d only resort to for survival.
There are mentions of bug eating in the Bible as well as in texts from ancient Greek and Rome. But in Modern Europe, the spread of agriculture and the domestication of livestock has made insects less important as food source. Until recently, it was in the Western psyche to shun the idea of entomophagy.
Seeing my friends’ reactions towards my question, it’s apparent that many Southeast Asians have been influenced by the Western sentiments and were brought up with the idea of bugs as dirty and disgusting. From the way Yudhi answered “Maybe during Dutch colonial time,” it’s clear that it’s something that we want to put behind us. Turning away from eating bugs is seen as a sign of progression, and with the influx of Western ideas, it has been come to be seen as ‘primitive’.
Bugs As Haute Cuisine
Ironically, the attitudes some Southeast Asians have towards insect is lagging behind opinion in the West, where they are becoming more open to entomophagy. Bug dishes are cropping up in fancy restaurants like Don Bugito in San Francisco, United States, as well as Michelin-starred Aphrodite in Nice, France.
Fortunately, not all Southeast Asians shun the idea of entomophagy with the same distaste. In countries like Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, traditions of collecting and cooking insects is a well-preserved tradition. “People don’t just go out to a field and grab whatever bugs that are roaming around, or else you’d end up eating something poisonous and that would really suck,” Chang told me. In these countries, the knowledge to catch and prepare bugs for human consumption is passed down generations, with care towards safety and sustainability.
This time-honoured wisdom combined with up-to-date gastronomy knowledge paved the way for bugs to make it in the modern culinary world. No longer are they limited to night markets or mobile food carts, you can now find crunchy bugs at sleek restaurants and in upmarket supermarket shelves. This is true especially in Thailand. Sunan, who works for an international hospitality brand, told me about one fine dining experience in Bangkok at a restaurant called Insects in the Backyard. “You should see how their silkworms are covered in cocoa dust and powdered pupae are mixed into mascarpone cream!” she told me excitedly. Now THAT is something that I can get behind. The next time I’m crying while eating bugs, it will be out of delight!
The Future Is Insectivore
After my experience in Thailand, I have to admit that I haven’t gone out of my way to eat bugs again. The idea still makes my stomach turn, but I know that I’ll come around someday. After all, I’m convinced that it’s the food of the future. By then the cultural bias against bugs will be gone and when you hear “Waiter, there’s a bug in my soup!” it will be in positive approval.