They are the largest group of animals with more species than any other; some 900,000 or so at last count. They need very little food, can be reared in a small space and breed rapidly. At least 44 types are edible, some very tasty indeed, and a Mahidol University graduate predicts we will be eating a lot more of these nutritious creatures in the future.
We are, of course, talking about insects so called because they belong to the class Insecta -- also called Hexapoda (meaning six-legged) -- of the phylum Arthropoda, one of the major phyla of invertebrate animals.
Eat insects? Disgusting, you say. But it is only in some cultures that the consumption of insects is considered unacceptable. In many parts of the world these little creatures are seen as a useful and nutritious food supplement. Africans eat protein-packed ants, worms, termites and grasshoppers. The Japanese export silkworm pupae as a foodstuff. And Mexico trades tinned larva with the US.
And in this country, especially in the North and Northeast (Isaan), people have been eating insects for centuries. Isaan boys delight in catching grasshoppers and tree beetles which, when deep-fried, make a very tasty snack. Cooks in Khon Kaen make a delicious dish by stir-frying malaeng da na (giant water bugs) with straw mushrooms, spring onions, chilli and garlic. A traditional regional delicacy from the North is a spicy salad or yam in which the essential ingredient (apart from chilli) is the large, milky-white egg of the red ant.
While country people have known the food value of insects for centuries, it is only in recent years that scientists have begun to study the nutritional content of bugs. With the human population increasing exponentially every year, demographers have been issuing regular warnings about the possibility of widespread famine in the next millennium. It seems logical, therefore, to explore all potential sources of food even if the idea of eating insects might be distasteful to some.
Sanga Damapong, a technical public health officer at the Health Ministry's Nutrition Division, is convinced that commercial insect farms may one day prove to be a valuable source of food.
'In terms of nutritional content and simple cost-effectiveness it would be much more sensible to raise bugs than cattle,' he says (not without a smile). 'It takes a lot of fodder, a large field and great effort to raise a single cow. Since insects eat little, do not require much space and breed so rapidly, it would cost a lot less to produce the same amount of protein.'
Since he originally hails from the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum, Sanga is no stranger to the food value of insects.
'When I was growing up they were easy to find around the farm. Termites were my favourite. They would fly around the open fire and their wings would shrivel up in the heat and then fall to the ground. We boys would gather up the little bodies and sprinkle them with salt to make a very tasty, crispy snack.'
'Rural people live close to nature and regard insects as just another part of the natural scheme of things. We get vast swarms of termites in Isaan during the rainy season and we villagers didn't see any reason why we should not benefit from the bounty of Mother Nature.'
Now a qualified nutritionist, Sanga has been able to prove that the nutritional value of insects compares well with that of more conventional foodstuffs. For instance, 100 grammes of dried insects contains 37 to 60 grammes of protein, and four to 33 grammes of fat. This, he says, is exactly the same amount of protein and fat found in 100 grammes of dried pork. Furthermore, some insects contain the same amount of calcium and phosphorus as a duck egg.
The National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine considers forty-four kinds of insect edible. To be absolutely sure that they are safe to eat, Sanga advises that you cook them first. Grilling over an open fire is the method favoured in the countryside but you can also stir- or deep-fry them or add some to a gaeng (curry) or other hot dish. Country people usually remove the wings, hard exoskeletons and (sometimes) the intestines before cooking. When tender some species are devoured with a chilli dip or added to a yam (spicy salad).
'Some insects pick up parasites from eating buffalo dung so avoid eating them raw. They must be rinsed well first and then thoroughly cooked. Some species also contain very small quantities of poisonous hydrocyanic acid. If a person were to eat a great deal of these insects raw, acid levels would build up in the body causing illness, fainting, vomiting, unconsciousness and, possibly, death. However, this substance is easily destroyed by heat.'
Insecticide residue is another danger.
'Some insects, particularly takatan pa tang ka (Bombay locust), destroy crops so the farmers spray their fields with insecticide which is harmful to humans, whether or not the insects are cooked.'
He says that a locust that has been exposed to toxic substances will often have drops of saliva at the corners of its mouth and advises against eating insects that are found dead.
Cuisine is part and parcel of every country's culture and it was this aspect which first attracted Kanwee Wiwatpanich to insects. Studying for a masters degree in Cultural Public Health at Mahidol University he hit on a most original thesis subject: eating habits, activities and cultural mores associated with the consumption of insects.
Kanwee travelled up to Ubon Ratchathani and spent five months there observing, gathering information, living with the natives and eating almost everything they eat.
'Their eating habits are completely in tune with the way they live. They eat every wild creature that is easy to find or trap, not just insects but water lizards, Kaloula pulchra, frogs, etc. I participated in the whole process from hunting to cooking to eating. And somehow the more fun the hunt is, the better the insects taste.'
'Fried locust was the only insect I had sampled before going to Ubon. But up there I tried almost every edible insect they have. My favourite is malaeng grachon (mole crickets). They are crispy and have a nice earthy taste. They live in damp soil so to catch them you have to make a hole in the ground and pour water down it. The crickets come to the surface to avoid being drowned. Then you have got to move very fast because they are pretty quick on their feet!'
One local delicacy Kanwee was not too keen on, though, is a species of giant spider that lives in the ground. 'They remove the spider's poisonous 'canine teeth' first then eat it alive. But I could not bear the thought of putting a big creepy-crawly in my mouth. Besides, there is no proof that eating live spiders is actually safe. The locals prefer to eat insects alive because they think dead ones might have been poisoned with chemical toxins.'
Kanwee thinks scientists should pay more attention to insects as a source of food. 'They [nutritionists] have already warned us not to eat uncooked fish because of the danger of parasites. A lot of people eat aquatic insects but nobody has yet made a study of these creatures to see which ones contain parasites. People need to know information like this so that they can take the necessary precautions.'
Of the insects extant today, one of the most ancient is the cockroach. It dates from the Carboniferous Period that began about 360 million years ago. Some Isaan folk believe that eating cockroaches can cure certain illnesses. But this insect, according to Kanwee, is a real health hazard even if cooked before being eaten. He said the cockroach spreads disease because it is host to a number of dangerous viruses and bacteria and a carrier of parasites like Raillietina sisiraji and Moniliformis which can cause stomachache, diarrhoea, tiredness and hallucinations.
After Kanwee published his thesis in book form (under the title Insects: Human Food in the Future) several environmentalists protested that by promoting the consumption of insects he was actually encouraging people to damage the ecosystem.
'I disagree. Firstly, farmers kill a great number of insects anyway. Secondly, insects are very resilient since they reproduce in enormous numbers. Besides I am encouraging people to eat insects as a food supplement not as their only source of protein.'