Why Is Eating Insects in Thailand Different?

Riding in a taxi on an abandoned industrial street on the outskirts of Bangkok, I was nervous. What am I doing? My anxiousness jumped when I arrived at my destination, was asked to take off my sandals and—now barefoot and in sweaty, fish sauce-stained travel clothes—led to a fancy boardroom. Uh oh. Two minutes later, in walked seven senior executives, all but one of whom sat directly across from me at the huge table. Oh crap. Maybe I overstated my importance a little too much in my emails I sent to arrange this meeting. Then I discovered that only one of them spoke any English. Yikes. Then the meeting started... and my nervousness vanished. Everyone—like seemingly all Thais—was exceedingly friendly and I learned some fascinating insights about eating insects in Thailand, one of the world's epicenters of bug eating. 

4 Things I Discovered About Eating Insects in Thailand

1. You can buy insects everywhere!

My meeting was with HiSo, a 3-year-old Thai insect food company that is the first in the country to sell packaged insects. Their products, dried crickets and silkworms in four different flavors, are distributed in convenience stores nationwide. An not just the odd mom-and-pop shop. We're talking 7-11, Tesco, and Family Mart. This isn't some novelty. They go through three tons of fresh crickets and silkworms a day. HiSo's living the dream of Western insect food entrepreneurs. 

HiSo products (middle right, white package) in a Bangkok 7-Eleven

HiSo products (middle right, white package) in a Bangkok 7-Eleven

 ... but they're not so easy to find

While HiSo products are widely distributed, nobody in my meeting could recommend me a local restaurant serving insect-based dishes. I only eventually found one with the help of an email from an insect food advocate and entomology professor from Northeastern Thailand. And the restaurant she recommended, Khrok Mai Thai Lao, was in far-flung part of town. So while in one regard insect food is everywhere, it is somewhat paradoxically only on the fringes of society at the same time. 

Mang mun (flying ant) from the restaurant Krok Mai Thai Lao in Bangkok

Mang mun (flying ant) from the restaurant Krok Mai Thai Lao in Bangkok

2. Eating insects in Thailand truly is normal

Surawat Rungtao, HiSo's marketing manager and my interpreter at the meeting, says his wife frequently serves him insects at home. Typically she stir fries them with water, not oil, and serves them with sticky rice. Because insects are so nutritious, he said, the portion sizes aren't as big as for other meats. They eat about one insect per thumb-sized portion of sticky rice. A literal rule of thumb!

I saw further evidence that eating insects in Thailand is normal at the Kholng Toei market, where a vendor was selling piles of fresh insects on ice, and at the Rod Fai night market, where people were nonchalantly buying yogurt containers of fried insects from a vendor.  

Fried insect vendor at Rod Fai night market in Bangkok. 

Fried insect vendor at Rod Fai night market in Bangkok. 

 ... but it isn't mainstream

While Surawat regularly eats insects now, he had never eaten an insect until he got married. (Imagine the look on his face the first time his new wife dropped a plate of fried silkworms in front of him!) 

And Surawat wasn't an exception. Nobody else at the meeting ate insects at home either. It turns out eating insects is only common in the remote northeast of Thailand. 

That would also explain why in all of Khlong Toei, an enormous fresh food market, there was only one insect vendor, and at Rod Fai more Thai people were ogling the fried insects like Westerners than buying them. 

Fresh insects on ice for sale at Khlong Toei market in Bangkok.

Fresh insects on ice for sale at Khlong Toei market in Bangkok.

3. The primary insect consumer is very different in Thailand than in the West

HiSo's primary consumers have moved to the city from their rural, traditionally insect-eating communities and are looking for a snack that reminds them of home. Their ages range widely, from 8 to 60+ years old. Younger people eat their products as on-the-go snacks, while older people eat it while drinking. 

 ... but their target consumer is the same

While HiSo plans to continue serving this traditional base consumer segment, their focus is shifting towards attracting hip millennials who are born-and-raised in the city. This is a key demographic targeted by most insect food (and other food products) in the West. 

4. Thai consumer tastes are remarkably different from Western tastes

The funniest moment of my meeting with the HiSo team came when I asked what they used to flavor the insects. The owner told me they used only natural flavors and no MSG.

"Oh good," I said, thinking like the Westerner I am.

His exuberant response: "No, not at all good!"

He explained that nutrition is not a factor when most Thais buy food. It's all about flavor. And they are clamoring for MSG!

Their preferred flavors are completely different too. While my favorite of their products I sampled were the BBQ flavored crickets, they told me that the top selling product was by far the one I had the hardest time swallowing, the "natural" flavored silkworm.  

Branding in Thailand is also very different from in the West. 

Branding in Thailand is also very different from in the West. 

 ... but their tastes are becoming more Western

HiSo's owner pointed out that Thai consumers' food preferences are increasingly mimicking those of their Western counterparts.

In response, this year he plans to add a nutritional focus to his marketing for the first time. They're also even considering introducing non-whole insect products. They already have agreements in place with cricket powder manufacturers and are doing product development on Western-style energy bars and snacks.   


An Uncertain Future for Eating Insects

I left my meeting with HiSo, and Thailand, with open eyes, but uncertain about the future of insects as food. There are strong parallels between the tradition of eating insects in Thailand and that of speaking an endangered indigenous language. In both cases these traditions are strong in select remote areas, there are proud pockets within the cities too, and there is a deep desire to keep them alive. But with every new generation they fade away.

In this regard, HiSo may be in a race against time. It must either fight to make this fading tradition cool again, or create a new tradition that will be carried forward by the younger, globalized Thai consumer.

And as for the West, can this tradition be successfully introduced here? I find it as unlikely as introducing a new language. The only chance is to create a new tradition that sounds familiar to the one we already speak.