Would it be too clichéd to start an article about eating insects with a ‘Waiter, waiter’ joke? Probably, so we’ll take that bit as read. But eating insects isn’t a funny business, and according to a 2013 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) it is something we should be paying serious attention to in the future.
In the Western word, eating insects has often been seen as a bit of a gimmick, with chocolate covered ants and novelty scorpion lollipops becoming popular at about the same time as coffee connoisseurs were swearing by civet-poo coffee. Television programs forced celebrities to consume insects as a form of entertainment to those so inclined as to enjoy the suffering of others, and intrepid backpackers whispered tales through their beads and braids about deep fried Tarantulas on sticks being thrust through their open bus windows in Cambodia.
In many parts of the word however, insects have always been a recognised important and much loved source of food. According to the FAO there are over two thousand edible insect species on Earth, and if you are interested in partaking in this alternative cuisine, you’re fortunate that a large menu of options are available in Myanmar.
But where to begin?
My recommendation, if you are venturing into Entomophagy for the first time is to start small, and carefully work your way up. The most common insect you’ll find to eat in Yangon is the cricket, known locally as Payit. You’ll see them at markets in large plastic bags, the biggest juiciest and most expensive are available after the monsoon season, the best ones coming from the Mandalay region.
They are deep-fried, often in front of you, and should be consumed in one go. It helps not to make eye contact with the cricket, though the large bulbous eyes that peer up at you are difficult to ignore. Most people remove the wings, and some take off the legs, which others say is the best bit, but watch out for the spiky bit on the back legs that could catch in the throat.
The crickets are crispy on the outside with a little bit of body inside to facilitate a good chew before swallowing. The closest description I can give to the texture is a bit like a cross between a shrimp and a pork scratching. There isn’t a great deal of flavour, maybe a hint of nuttiness, but they are actually quite nice if you can get over the squeamishness of it all, and great with beer. You can normally pick up a small bag of deep-fried crickets on 19th street for a few thousand Kyat.
So far so good? Ready to move onto the main course? How about some worms?
You can quite often find bags of bamboo worms for sale in the markets, especially in the rural areas of Myanmar. These little worms are deep fried and then often tossed in salt and chilli. They’re so small you should really take a handful and pop them in. Again they haven’t really got much flavour, perhaps a touch of smoky bacon crisps about them, but also great with a beer.
If you are in Shan, you might be lucky enough to see ants for sale, these yellow coloured insects are sour, and taste not unlike bitter lemons, ask around for Kar chin, but they are seasonal, so you might be disappointed. At this time of year though you can often pick up a bag of flying ants called Palu. They are the ones that appear in the thousands out of holes in trees in the early evening just after a rainfall and then die shortly after. They are good eating, I’m told.
In my extensive research for this article I failed miserably to source the large white grubs that I had seen for sale at the market on 19th street one drunken evening. I think they were Sago worms, and I’m disappointed now that I didn’t take the opportunity to try them then at the time. As long as a finger, and a bit thicker, they were thrown wriggling into a pan and fried alive for a minute, before being served. My drinking companion explained that once you had bitten through the crispy outer shell, the inside was gooey and tasty. Definitely one to look out for in the future.
Whether you are trying them for the fun of it, as a quick snack with a beer or considering drastically changing your diet, the eating of insects is a very healthy and environmentally friendly approach to food.
Although 100g of crickets contains about half the calories and protein of the same amount of beef or chicken, they require about twelve times less food input, thousands of times less water, and a fraction of the space to produce. The farming of insects is less of a burden on the environment, cheaper and more sustainable than animal agriculture, and requires very little initial outlay to establish. Insects are packed with minerals and vitamins are a vital source of amino acids, and are set to be an important ingredient in meeting the dietary needs of the worlds growing population.
If the thought of eating insects is really too much for you, just have a look at the ingredients on the packets of food you are putting in your basket at the supermarket. If you see the words cochineal or carmine, then it’s too late; you’re already a bug eater!
A version of this article was published in MY Yangon Magazine – July 2015