Two feelers, six legs, and one tasty omelette

THE last time I saw ant eggs, they were cradled by an endless stream of ants who had decided to move their colony out of the pouring rain and into my car. I wasn’t too thrilled.

Now, they were staring at me on my dinner plate. My heart raced a little at the sight of the glistening white pods - the size of mung beans - peeking out from the edges of my otherwise nondescript omelette.

This is khai jiaw khai mod daeng, or "omelette with red ant eggs”, a delicacy in Thailand that is served in speciality restaurants at this time of the year.

I was miles away from Bangkok, where tourists dare each other to munch on a deep fried critter, to the bemusement of locals who grew up snacking on grasshoppers, crickets and a whole lot of other bugs. I was in Khon Kaen province in northeastern Thailand (also called Isan), where edible insects are serious business and make their farmers fortunes where other produce can’t. This was also where cricket farming started in earnest more than a decade ago, and also the base of entomologists who tout bugs as a protein-rich, environmentally-friendly answer to world hunger.

This is arguably Thailand’s ground zero of insect gastronomy, and I was here on a simple mission: To find out how they tasted like.

Surrounded by the pretty bamboo walls and trickling fountains in this Isan cuisine restaurant, I pried the white blob of an ant egg from the omelette and popped it in my mouth. The tiny sac burst as I bit down on it, spewing onto my tongue a briny cocktail with an aftertaste of dried shrimp. There was a little crunch inside too.  A few mouthfuls later, I found out why: Each sac contained a shrivelled carcass of an otherwise perfectly formed weaver ant – two feelers, six legs and a bulbous head.

The next evening, while poking around a local market, I found ants again on the menu. This time, it was sold by a street vendor who was hawking at least eight other types of worms and critters, most of them deep fried with copious amounts of monosodium glutamate.

He firmly declined my request to stuff all the bugs in one bag. “Mai aroi (not delicious),” he said, frowning in a manner which suggested I had committed a gastronomic faux paus by wanting to mix all the delicate tastes together.

This time round, the ants were adults and had been smoked (or perhaps dry fried) with heaps of lemongrass. Even without the herb, they had a refreshing citrus zing.

There were other stars in my bags of bug delights:

The bamboo worm, which is typically harvested in northern Thailand, tasted like French fries.

The local thong dam cricket went down well with its subtle dried-shrimp-brown-rice flavour.  Its smaller counterpart, the sading, had a more intense taste of scrambled eggs, mushroom and seaweed.

The silkworm pupa was an acquired taste, with its musky undertone. The grasshopper, meanwhile, was strangely bitter, something a local later attributed to having been over-fried.

Meanwhile I gave up trying to eat the scarab beetle, whose wings had the texture of plastic even after being deep fried.At the end of my bug tasting experiment, I had still barely scratched the surface of Thailand’s edible insect world, which consists of almost 200 species.

The psychological effect though, was longer lasting.  It made me wonder what other bugs could be eaten. I started developing benign feelings towards the housefly buzzing around my dinner plate.

With a bit more research and agricultural innovation, could that be my next meal?

tanhy@sph.com.sg