Register Tuesday | December 11 | 2018

Bugs: A Culinary Guide

Jared Young snacks on grubs, wings and exoskeletons

For centuries, impoverished farmers in Northern Thailand harvested insects for sustenance. Today, in urban centres, traditional dishes like spicy red-ant soup and flame-roasted giant dung-beetles are served from motorcycles with sidecar-trolleys.  Jared Young samples a selection.  

BOMBAY LOCUST

The Bombay locust grows to be several inches in length, though, like a raw hamburger patty, tends to shrink a bit on the grill. Still, it’s an intimidating mouthful. I found it best to imagine I was eating a locust-shaped potato chip.
It had a pleasant, nutty taste. Stale Melba toast shaved thin and layered like lettuce.  The wings were a bit papery, and stuck to the roof of my mouth like flakes of French pastry.  The bulbous abdomen was dry and brittle and fairly hollow, like an empty peanut shell. The first time I chewed it, something caught in the corner of my mouth; the serrated edge sawed into the soft skin there. Later, I learned to pluck off the locust’s thorny rear legs, but I was as yet a dilettante, and eagerly broke the hard thing into grainy little pieces with my rear molars. It went down like eggshells.

The locust was surprisingly enjoyable. Not tasty, in the traditional sense, but texturally satisfying. Like that first bitter swallow of beer when I was fourteen years old, it was, in some manner beyond description, enchanting.   BAMBOO CATERPILLARS
At a bar on Khao San Road—that notorious backpacker’s sanctuary—I purchased a bag of salted bamboo caterpillars to go with a cold beer. Rot duan, they’re called. “Express trains.” They did, indeed, resemble the passenger cars of Bangkok’s Skytrain. They also resembled maggots, which gave me a moment of pause.

An aesthetic issue, surely, but maggots have become such a horror movie cliché that it was difficult not to picture my handful of salted snacks crawling through the abyss-black eye sockets of a human skull, or wriggling like landed fish in a bright-red axe wound. Having gone hunting when I was younger, I’d seen maggots luxuriating in mammalian flesh before; they wriggle at super-speed, almost vibrating; a pulsating brain-like mass. Was I about to put this same stuff in my mouth?
The bugs went down easy. Deep-fried, they tasted like french fries too long submerged in oil, slightly burnt and almost translucent. No matter how hard I tried to conjure some psychological block, it was never as hard as I thought it should be. In the end, insects are just meat, no different from chicken or pork or fish.  

WATER BEETLE

“Maeng da!” the vendor exclaimed, calling it by the Thai name. I thought the water beetle’s resemblance to the cockroach would be the greatest obstacle to consumption, but, as it was with the locust, I found it easy to disassociate the deep-fried snack from the living arthropod. I remember similar beetles from my time in Regina. In the spring, after it rained, the sidewalks in the south end would be littered with them, as if someone had tossed a handful of dark almonds on the ground and stomped them flat.

The water beetles—a delicacy among local insects—were too large to swallow in one bite, so I bit one in half, ass-end first. It was quite a bit softer than the locust. There was more substance to it; less of the moisture had evaporated during the cooking process. The hard outer shell, weakened by the heat, cracked easily, and beneath it the abdomen was spongy like undercooked toffee.

My palate was beginning to learn the subtleties of flavor: beneath the nutty power chords there hummed a faint echo of mint. “Aroy,” I told the vendor, which meant it was delicious.     

SCORPIONS (out of season)

I was instructed, by a vendor on Soi 26, to remove the tail sting before putting it in my mouth. This was said with the same nonchalance that the guy at the Chiang Mai shooting range told me the safety was off on the 9mm handgun I was pointing, proudly, at my own foot. Though soaked in white liquor to neutralize the toxin, it is apparently bad protocol to chew on the scorpion’s tail. Not necessarily poisonous, it contains, nonetheless, poisonous elements.

The scorpion I ate must have been well-soaked, because I could taste the acrid tingle of alcohol as soon as I bit into it; like one of those horrible liquor-infused Christmas chocolates that, each year, remain uneaten through April and are eventually tossed in the trash; the pleasant softness of chocolate, that rush of endorphins, and then the Cointreau splashes out and annihilates your taste buds. The scorpion unleashed a subtler sort of damage: I felt like I’d licked the business end of a double-A battery.
The scorpion’s legs—unlike the reedy legs of locusts and grasshoppers—were brittle and snapped off easily. I chewed them like Hickory Sticks. I cracked open the small pincers like they were lobster claws, but there was, to my dismay, no significant victuals inside. Altogether a disappointing meal. Aware that I was being watched—by the vendor, by curious passersby—and hoping to protect my reputation as an enlightened expatriate, I resurrected a trick from my childhood and hid the bitter exoskeletal carcasses in a crumpled-up napkin.