5 QUESTIONS | Chef Thitiwat Tantragarn of Insects in the Backyard

The young chef is convinced that eating bugs is the answer to feeding the world.

Chef Thitiwat Tantragarn, 30, didn’t grow up eating bugs in Bangkok. But in January, he began to visit farms all over Thailand to taste white and red crickets, grasshoppers, giant water beetles, bamboo caterpillars and silkworms. He brought his favorite insects home and got to work in the kitchen. Tantragarn and his team ground up silkworms for tiramisu, spooned crispy caterpillars over scallops and stuffed beetle meat into ravioli. They paired these creations with booze, from Southeast Asian beer to Australian Cabernet Shiraz. In July, Tantragarn helped to open Insects in the Backyard in Bangkok, which could very well be the only fine insect dining restaurant in the world. 

Chef Thitiwat Tantragarn, 30, didn’t grow up eating bugs in his native Bangkok. But he’s sure eaten a lot of them this year. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Chef Thitiwat Tantragarn believes eating insects is the path to sustaining the world’s growing population in the future.

Abbie Fentress Swanson: Why did you create a high-end dining experience focused on bugs?

Chef Thitiwat Tantragarn: The human population is growing but we don’t have enough protein. So we need to find a source of protein that can sustain humans. We have a lot of insects in the world, more than 1,900 kinds that are edible. It’s a good source of protein and insects are environmentally friendly. They have a low carbon footprint and they don’t require much food or water to grow.

Red and white crickets, giant water beetles and grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars and silkworms. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
(From top-to-bottom) Red and white crickets, giant water beetles and grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars and silkworms.

AFS: How do you figure out which insect farms to work with?

TT: I visit each farm before we decide to use them as suppliers to see how they feed their insects, how they grow them, what the land is like around each farm. We have many insect farms in Thailand because now people are beginning to eat insects more and more. We can’t meet the demand if we buy from people who find them in forests or in nature. Also, we can’t control the safety and hygiene of bugs that are found in the forest.

Bamboo caterpillars top grilled scallops and pureed Jerusalem artichokes. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Bamboo caterpillars on grilled scallops and pureed Jerusalem artichokes.

AFS: What’s the reaction from diners when they eat your food for the first time?

TT: Mostly, they’re excited. One customer came in and asked me to cook her a dish with insects. But she said she was only going to taste one bite because she was too scared to eat insects. So I cooked for her and said, “You should eat this, it tastes great!” She tried a bite and was surprised to find that she liked it. She said, “Today, I ate a lot of bugs!”

Fine insect dining: Ravioli topped with Parmesan and sun-dried tomatoes and filled with crab and giant water beetle meat. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes is ravioli filled with the meat of crab and giant water beetles, topped with Parmesan cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

AFS: Is the idea to pair insects with more familiar ingredients so you don’t intimidate your diners?

TT: Yes. For example, we serve scallops with bamboo caterpillars so it’s not too scary for people who want to try it. We have a grilled sea bass in an ant caviar sauce. We have ravioli with crab and giant water beetle that doesn’t look too scary. To get the beetle meat, you need to open up the insect and take out the flesh. Like when you eat shrimp, you peel the skin to get to the meat. For the scallops with bamboo caterpillars, we sauté the caterpillars with olive oil and salt, pepper, paprika and cumin. Then we add a little bit of white wine and serve them over grilled scallops and pureed Jerusalem artichokes.

To make the tiramisu, silkworms are ground up and mixed into the dessert. Three bugs also come on top. Stan Lee/KCRW
The silkworm tiramisu contains ground-up silkworms and three toasted bugs that rest on top of the dish.

AFS: What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

TT: The nachos, which contain my favorite bug, the white cricket. Try one! It’s like a baby shrimp, which we often eat in Thailand. I like American-style nachos with meat, beans, jalapeños and cheese. But if I made nachos like that here, people wouldn’t taste the insects. So I decided to put whole fried insects — white and red crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo caterpillars and silkworms — on the chips with just a little sour cream, salsa and dukkah. I want people to taste the bugs.

Crunch on crunch: The nachos feature deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and bamboo caterpillars. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Crunch on crunch: The nachos feature deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms and bamboo caterpillars.

Learn more about Insects in the Backyard on NPR’s The Salt blog.

Insects in the Backyard opened in Bangkok's trendy Chang Chui market in July. Photo by Stan Lee/KCRW
Insects in the Backyard opened in Bangkok’s trendy Chang Chui market in July.

Photos by Stan Lee, Fried Chicken Sandwich Studios and 2016 James Beard Foundation visual storytelling award winner. This post made possible with help from KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.