Creepy crawlies are getting a bad rap, they contend. Creepy, crawly? Try wriggly, yummy instead, they suggest. I stumbled upon this reality recently when I was invited by a local gastronome in the capital city to a food-tasting tour. From among several restaurants in Cau Giay Dist. and Khuong Thuong Village that serve all kinds of insects, we chose one located near the Hanoi Medical University in Dong Da District. Nguyen Tat Kien’s restaurant has no name and looks like an ordinary canteen for students. “The restaurant serves regular customers, and the number matches our capacity,” said Kien, welcoming us, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. The second and third floors of this eatery were occupied with a lot of people chatting and eating insects, including worms, grasshoppers, crickets, and stink bugs, cooked in different ways. “One more plate of bo ngua rut ruot (hollow mantis) and ant-egg fried with mushroom, and a bottle of ong mat quy (hornet) wine, please,” ordered one of the customers.
For us, Kien asked the chef to prepare bugs, worms and ant-eggs. Kien, who started the restaurant in 2002, said, “It was meant originally for my friends and relatives who were curious to taste new, special dishes from around the country, but then it became popular through word-of-mouth advertising.” He himself is an outsider in the business, he said, because all the cooking is supervised by his mother. “My mother is Vietnamese-Thai, she had worked for insect restaurants in Thailand for years, and now she is giving her knowledge to us,” Kien said. He said he travels often to different places in the north and south of the country to look for new kinds of insects. Ant eggs from the northern provinces of Phu Tho and Hoa Binh, ve sau (cicada) and sau dua (coconut worm) from the south, ca cuong (Lethocerus indicus) and house crickets from Laos are all served at his restaurant. The kaffir lime leaf that is used in cooking some dishes is imported from Thailand, Kien informed us.
In a few minutes, the food was on our table. Legless and wingless bugs, about as big as human adult nails, were placed in line on the plate, decorated with some sweet tomatoes cut in half. The plate of bugs was joined by a white dish – ant eggs cooked in the style of the Muong ethnic group. Big toe-sized worms that were crawling in baskets in the kitchen now looked delicious roasted. I could see that the image of these insects when they are alive could discourage some people from trying them. My friend had no such problem. Picking up a roasted worm and rolling it in some herbs and dipping it in a spicy fish sauce, he unhesitatingly put it his mouth and began chewing, announcing: “It is most delicious when it is still hot.” Then he got to work on the plates of crispy grasshoppers, scorpions, bugs and ant-eggs. I gave the worms a pass, but tried everything else. The bugs were a bit pungent smelling, and Kien explained that although lime and alum are used to deodorize the smell, the cooked ones still carried a particular odor. The odor itself attracts customers, he said. Kien said that ant-eggs was the dish most ordered by his customers. So far, the restaurant offers the dish cooked six to seven different ways, just like the Muong and Tay ethnic groups in the northern mountainous provinces and Thailand. But among the most particular gastronomes, the most popular dish were the worms. “And the best way to eat worm is when it is still alive. The wriggling worms dipped in pure fish sauce mixed with garlic and chilly are so tasty and nutritious.”
Everyday, Kien’s restaurant consumes several kilos of grasshoppers, cartons of crickets and so on. In the near future, he plans to add new dishes to the menu, including grilled spider and worms found in cassava in the central area. Insects are not top on most people’s menu, although it has been acknowledged as a rich source of nutrition. Dr. Bui Cong Hien, director of Center of Applied Entomology under the University of Natural Sciences in Hanoi, says insects are considered nutritious food in Thailand, China, and several European countries, and in the future, they will become one of the major sources of protein in the world. Time to open that can of worms!