What a business meeting with insect snack executives in Bangkok taught me about eating bugs in Thailand.
“What am I doing?”
I nervously second-guessed myself as my taxi took me deeper down an abandoned industrial street on the outskirts of Bangkok. When I arrived, the receptionist asked me to take off my sandals and escorted me to a fancy boardroom. Barefoot and sweaty in fish sauce-stained travel clothes, I was not prepared for this.
Two minutes later, in walked seven senior executives. All but one sat directly across from me at the huge table. Maybe I had 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.
The meeting started… and my nervousness vanished. Like seemingly all Thais, everyone was exceedingly friendly and I learned some fascinating insights about eating insects in Thailand, one of the world’s epicenters of bug eating.
5 Things I Discovered About Eating Insects in Thailand
1. You can buy insects everywhere in Thailand…
My meeting was with HiSo, a 3-year-old Thai insect food company that is the first in the country to sell packaged insects.
They distribute their products, dried crickets and silkworms in four different flavors, are distributed in convenience stores nationwide. And 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.
… but they’re not so easy to find
While HiSo products are widely distributed, nobody in my meeting could recommend me a Bangkok restaurant serving insect-based dishes.
I only eventually found one with the help of an insect food advocate and entomology professor from Northeastern Thailand who I emailed. The restaurant she recommended, Khrok Mai Thai Lao, was in far-flung part of town. So while in one regard insect food is everywhere in Thailand, it is somewhat paradoxically only on the fringes of society at the same time.
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 buying yogurt containers filled with fried insects from a vendor like we buy blueberries back in Vancouver.
…but it isn’t mainstream
While Surawat regularly eats insects now, he had never eaten a single one until he got married. (…At least not on purpose. See: How many bugs do we really eat in a year?)
[Imagine the look on Surawat’s 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 night market, more Thai people were ogling the fried insects like Westerners than buying them.
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 them 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 consumers’ tastes are remarkably different from Westerners’…
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.
…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.
5. The future of eating bugs in Thailand is uncertain…
I left my meeting with HiSo, with a deeper understanding of eating bugs in Thailand, a backpack full of samples, and uncertainty about the future of insects as food.
The tradition of eating insects in Thailand is similar to that of speaking an endangered indigenous language. In both cases, these traditions are strong in select remote areas and proud pockets within the cities. There is a deep desire to keep them alive, but they seem to be fading away with every new generation.
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 unlikely to take off in the West
As for the West, can the tradition of eating insects be successfully introduced here?
I find it as unlikely as introducing a new language. The only chance is if we run out of alternatives or a brilliant marketer figures out how to create a new tradition that’s familiar to the we’re already fluent in.
Unlock Your Unconventionality
Enter the password to get access to The Unconventional Monthly, new ideas on a different topic once a month.
2,148 are already in.