BANGKOK: The tasting menu at Chef Surasit Buttama’s restaurant at first glance contains many of the culinary elements you would expect at a fine dining establishment: scallops with Jerusalem artichokes, ravioli with turmeric saffron sauce and grilled seabass with blackened corn salsa.
But intertwined and infused into each of the dishes, there is something unusual. Silkworms, wingless long horned grasshoppers and bamboo caterpillars are unabashedly showcased as integral parts of each plate.
The dishes are creatively composed and executed with precision. Still, seeing a giant water beetle with wings outstretched perched on pasta - as elegant as that might sound - is a challenge for the uninitiated diner.
Chef Gong, as he is known, is not just dabbling with insects. They are his entire premise, a deep dive into an alternative protein that he believes will shake the restaurant industry in Thailand and beyond in the coming years.
“In our restaurant, we strive to bring insects to be made into food for people to feel, eat and taste, and to make them open their minds in order to prepare themselves for the near future.”
All of the insects used in the restaurant are sourced from organic operations, mostly in northern and eastern Thailand. It is an important guiding philosophy - produce that is sustainably farmed or foraged and which supports local producers.
Being conscientious of the origin of food and its impact on the planet has been a leading trend in global food in recent years. Yet despite their obvious health benefits - notably very high protein levels that exceed typical red meat - and a far softer footprint on the environment to farm, insects are still a culinary oddity.
But Chef Gong is sure they will be the next big thing. Aside from the fun he derives from experimenting and creating, driving his concept is a desire to tackle looming food supply issues.
“We see that in the future, the population will increase and there won’t be enough protein sources for the increased population. “We will use more water, more electricity, and more manpower. So, we looked for alternative sources of protein. We then found insects,” he said.
"If we wanted to have cow farming, we would need to cut down trees or buy bigger land and build a factory. But for insect farming, we need less space, we use less water and we need less feed. This will help a lot if we start to wake up.”
Even in Thailand where insect consumption is part of the culture of many communities, Chef Gong knows that convincing people to betray their instincts and stick a fork into a bug on their plate is not an easy task.
Still, in the two years Insects in the Backyard has been open, he has been encouraged by the response and increasing patronage, including from many international tourists, particularly from Singapore.
“For people who have never tried insects before, when we serve the dishes and say, ‘enjoy your dinner’, some of them would say ‘oh my god!’ Some of them scream or say they have goosebumps. But once they try the dishes, they would say they are delicious,” Surasit said.
One of the restaurant's customers on the day of CNA’s visit, Pakwan Chinpattanawanich, was eating alone and admitted her friends did not join her on this visit. “If you know how to eat then you eat them. But if you don’t then you don’t dare to try!” she said.
“I love eating insects but I don’t normally get to eat various kinds. It’s so diverse. I think they are delicious.”
Thailand has become the world’s leader in this industry, and Chef Gong is far from alone in seizing the initiative to promote this kind of eating on a broader scale.
TOM YUM BUGS
In Suan Pheung, Ratchaburi province - about 170 kilometres west of Bangkok - crickets are growing. Not in fields or forests but on carefully stacked trays inside dark, purpose-made buildings.
These incubators are climate controlled and sterile. Hiding inside, the ingredients in a new phase of Thailand’s edible insect industry are multiplying. This is a farm but not how one might traditionally imagine it.
Insects have long been grown for eating in Thailand, but it was only in the late 1990s that the technology to breed and farm crickets was introduced to Thai farmers after new research done at Khon Kaen University.
Within 15 years, there were approximately 20,000 farms operating across the country, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which in 2013 recognised Thailand as “one of the few countries in the world to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector”.
Market conditions were challenging and researchers noted a lack of support for producers. Most of the insects would be sold directly to market vendors or small restaurants.
For the urban consumer, there was little evidence of the industry’s existence. And Thatnat Chanthatham saw an opportunity.
Thatnat is the president of Smile Bull Marketing and producer of crispy baked insect brand, Hiso - a mischievous play on a commonly used Thai slang expression for “high society”. The idea is to elevate the notion of eating insects beyond traditional markets and into contemporary, marketable products that can be sold across the world.
“In Thailand, we have street foods and we consume insects from food carts. Our idea was to make street food more hygienic and safe, and make an alternative and give more choices. This was how we started,” he said.
“But then we were thinking about if it was necessary that the insects have the same taste as those being sold in wheel carts. Could they have other tastes? Could they have a BBQ, cheesy, nori seaweed or, Thais’ favourite, tom yum taste?
“We wanted to be the ones who use innovation and process insects into various forms, making them more accessible.”
Once they reach a suitable size and maturity at around 50 days, the crickets being farmed in Suan Pheung will be collected, asphyxiated, frozen, cleaned and sorted. They are eventually flavoured and placed into snack sized packaging, which looks similar to potato chips or nori seaweed sheets.
Hiso snacks can be purchased in some convenience stores as well as major supermarket chains in Thailand. It is available overseas in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and Thatnat says talks have begun for the snacks to be exported to Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.
In a further overseas market push, Thatnat’s group also produces cricket powder, which is touted as a health protein supplement and targeted at customers in Europe and the United States. This is insect eating 4.0 for Thailand which is taking the product beyond the “ugly” physical appearance of insects, which many people struggle with, Thatnat said.
Business is steady but not exploding, he admitted. The company processes about two tonnes of insects per month but domestic sales have not been growing. It is raw evidence of the hurdle to reach the mainstream.
“It is very difficult even for Thailand where people already consume insects. It is very hard to do marketing and send messages out that the insects people consume aren’t just snacks but they have benefits,” he said.
“We make ads and send information out a lot that insects have high protein and how good they are and how consuming them can help reduce global warming. But for Asia and for Thais, they aren’t interested in this.”
The United Nations is a leading voice in promoting such enterprises in the face of concerns about global food sustainability and rising hunger. Some of the considerations for such advice include insect farming being 12 times more efficient than cattle when it comes to converting feed to meat, and four times more efficient than pigs. The output of greenhouse gases in their production is a fraction of large scale operations for other proteins. Animal welfare, water use and the risk of spreadable infections are other factors, although FAO says more research is still needed to settle the science.
"Integrating insects into the diet may assist to address nutrition issues and food insecurity in the region," said Katinka de Balogh, Senior Animal Health and Production Officer with FAO in Bangkok.
"Nevertheless, further improvement in farmer knowledge, practices and attitude in using insects as part of their diets and in livestock production is needed.
Over time, like Chef Gong, Thatnat is confident his business will be on the right side of the trend. “In the next 10 years, I believe that insect consumption will be more accepted and become normal. When it becomes normal, there will be more sources and farms. I believe that our company won’t be the only one doing this,” he said.
“Our world has been badly abused by people and our destruction of environments. But insect farming is farming that cares about the environment. Consuming insects will help farmers, help the world and help prolong the life of the planet.”
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat.