With concerns being raised about the environmental impact of relying on traditional meats as a source of protein, attention is being turned to alternatives such as insects – with Thailand leading the push towards bringing them into the culinary mainstream.
The tasting menu at Chef Surasit Buttama’s Bangkok restaurant at first glance contains many of the culinary elements you would expect at a fine dining establishment. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.