Three courses into my tasting menu at what's regarded as one of Bangkok's top restaurants and I've reached the moment I'm dreading: the ravioli. But the reason for my weariness isn't an intolerance to wheat, or the spicy turmeric sauce drizzled over the delicate parcel of meat. It's the knowledge of what lies beneath – in this case, the soft white flesh of a giant water beetle.
I've come to Thailand's capital to check out the recently-opened Insects in the Backyard, a restaurant founded by Thai chef Thitiwat Tantragarn, a firm believer in insects as an eco-friendly food source. And he's not alone – a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that consumption of insects could improve nutrition and reduce pollution. There are various indicators that this beautiful restaurant in the heart of the Chang Chui, one of Bangkok's best night markets, isn't your typical Thai restaurant – there's the enormous tarantula, framed like a priceless piece of art, and the huge fibreglass Venus flytrap towering above diners.
High in protein, insects could be the future of the food industry © Ben Petcharapiracht / Shutterstock
"The human population is exploding and we simply don't have enough protein," points out Tantragarn, who's learned his craft in the kitchens of Thailand's top restaurants, including D'Sens and Medici. He points out that his insects, which are all sourced from farms in and around Bangkok, are low maintenance, too. "Insect farming has the lowest carbon footprint of any type of farming," says Tantragarn. "If you feed an insect two kilograms of food it will produce one kilogram of protein for human consumption. But you need to feed a single cow eight kilograms to produce one kilogram of protein."
Their health benefits don't just extend to protein. "Four crickets contain the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk," enthuses Tantragarn. "And they're a great source of healthy fats." They're an incredibly affordable food source, too, with one exception: bamboo caterpillars. "They're hard to find," says Tantragarn with a shrug. "One kilogram costs around 2000 Thai Baht (£46)."
Tantragarn's menu revolves around seven insect species, all of which are prepared using dry – rather than wet – cooking techniques, in an effort to preserve their delectable crunchiness. "Because of their hard exteriors, we'll never steam or boil them – we'll usually fry, sauté or toast them," he explains, adding that the biggest challenge is the preparation. "It's not like filleting a fish – some of the insects have stings which need to be removed, although most are served whole." The larger ones – like the giant water beetle, which comes from the same family as the crab and has a similar, soft white meat – are cut up beforehand.
Scallop garnished with bamboo caterpillars © Tamara Hinson
As for his favourite? "The white cricket, because of its gorgeous nutty flavour," reveals Tantragarn. They're also the biggest hit with customers, although silk worms come a close second, which taste like corn. So, what should you wash these insect dishes down with? Apparently, crickets, like most insects, go rather well with a dry white wine – a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc being a particularly good pairing. "White wines are the best choice because our insects all have white meat, apart from the from silk worms, which have yellow meat."
It's time for me to dig in. I've opted for the six-course tasting menu, which starts with nachos topped with cherry tomato salsa, sour cream – and crickets. It's the first time I've eaten an insect (to my knowledge) and I'm pleasantly surprised – the tangy salsa provides the perfect contrast to the earthiness of the insects, although the crunchiness takes a bit of getting used to. And then there's the appearance. With its tiny head, wings and legs, there's no ignoring the fact that I'm chowing down on a cricket. Next up is a succulent scallop, garnished with an artichoke and a handful of bamboo caterpillars. Their tiny size leaves me struggling to identify their particular taste, unlike the next dish – the giant water beetle, repackaged in its turmeric sauce-drizzled ravioli parcel. The meat has the same taste and consistency as crab, and it's delicious.
Nachos topped with cherry tomato salsa, sour cream – and crickets © Tamara Hinson
It's followed by a dainty slice of grilled sea bass, topped with ant caviar, mother of ant buerre blanc sauce and a blackened corn salsa. I've never heard of ant caviar, but it's buttery and wonderfully rich, and I think I might be hooked.
My penultimate dish is wingless long-horned grasshopper risotto with fresh herbs and parmesan cheese. The relief at its wingless status (nobody wants a grasshopper wing stuck in their molars, after all) is offset by the reference to its horn, although upon closer inspection, I can't actually identify this particular body part. The risotto isn't simply topped with a single insect – Tantragarn appears to have sprinkled an entire grasshopper farm over the dish. Aided by the free-flowing Sauvignon Blanc (which does indeed go particularly well with water beetle), I tuck in, and discover that grasshoppers' salty, nutty taste is a perfect pairing for the delicate flavours of the risotto.
My final dish is ice cream, although at this point I'm very aware it's not going to be a dish of Haagen-Dazs. My scoop of silkworm ice cream, served atop a crepe suzette, is a delicious work of art which ranks as one of the best desserts I've ever had.
The verdict? Insects in the Backyard has certainly earned its reputation as one of Bangkok's best attractions. Eating insects rocks. They're tasty, nutritious and surprisingly cheap, and they're coming to a restaurant near you. Just keep a toothpick to hand.
Top image: © Chaikom / Shutterstock