Food and drink 

Edible bugaboos - More than 1,400 kinds of insects are eaten; what’s your excuse?

A scientist I know who’s an expert on the mountain pine beetle likes to impress guests he takes out in the woods by scratching around the bark of a pine tree, picking out a pine beetle grub or two and noshing them down. He says they taste, well, like nothing, really — a bit pine-y because of what they feed on, vaguely reminiscent of retsina, and that’s about it.

I, on the other hand, have never much fancied eating bugs. Some kids I grew up with ate them on a dare or swallowed one accidentally. But, frankly, the thought of eating a wiggling ant put me right off. I could never picture biting into them while they were still alive to still those scrabbling legs and undulating abdomens.

But for some, eating a bug is not so difficult. My husband, Peter, recalls his dad coming home from work one day with a two-inch beetle covered in sugar crystals and sepulchered in a glass vial.

A workmate had given it to Nick to try. He ate them all the time and thought Nick might like to do same, reminding him not to eat the scratchy wings, which could catch in your throat. Instead, Nick sequestered the big beetle in his dresser drawer where Peter would occasionally marvel at it, in horror and fascination.

Quite likely it was a May bug, with its big brown elytra that protect the gauzy wings, a bug that can be 3 cm long, common in England and Europe, where they are easily caught due to their slow, clumsy flight and are reported to be delicious when roasted or sugar-coated.

I was reminded about all this eating of bugs (or not) when I came across a report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization the other day. The FAO and the local university sponsored a workshop in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to explore forest insects as food sources.

This struck me as particularly appropriate. The last time I was in Chiang Mai I distinctly remember leaving one of the restaurants near the night market and spying a large round basket filled with deep-fried grasshoppers (locusts? cicadas?) prominently on display near the door where one might expect to find a dish of mints. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in northern Thailand insects are a huge food source.

I may well have eaten something unrecognizable but insect-like in that restaurant, as easy as it was to eat the unexpected in another place north of Chiang Mai. This was a small, family-run restaurant overlooking the Mekong River and Laos beyond.

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