Vietnamese serve crickets crispy, peppered

September 25, 2006

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By Grant McCool HO CHI MINH CITY, Sept 25 (Reuters) – Would you like your crickets deep fried and crispy? Peppered and presented in a neat circle on a bed of green leaves? Breeders of crickets say the insects have become “finger food for beer drinkers” in an age of increasing prosperity in Vietnam compared with the recent past when they might have been food for the hungry or for wartime soldiers surviving in the jungle. Businessman Le Thanh Tung raises hundreds of thousands of the flying insects in barrels and sells them to restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, the Southeast Asian country’s largest urban area, or to other breeders in neighbouring provinces. “The taste is very particular, very special and it smells good and tastes delicious but it is very difficult to compare cricket to other meat,” said Tung, 28, suggesting that crickets are an acquired taste. At his small farm and restaurant about 25 km (16 miles) west of the city centre, a plastic-covered menu with photographs of cricket dishes offers “young crickets deep fried”, “cricket salad”, “breaded cricket”, “cricket noodle” and “peppered cricket”. One customer rode 340 km on a motorbike from his home near the border with Cambodia to buy two boxes full of twitching, chirping crickets to breed and serve at his restaurant. “There is a demand because people like to eat better,” said the customer, Nguyen Chinh Anh. CRUNCHY CRICKETS Back in the hot kitchen of the farm’s brick-faced building covered by a tin roof, Tung’s sister-in-law, Huynh Thi Oanh Kieu, scoops up a colander of crickets from a plastic basin and gently releases them into boiling oil. They sizzle and smoke for five to 10 minutes and she pulls them out. Crunchy crickets are ready. Tung gives his guests six dishes of crickets of various sizes, shapes and colours nestled on long yellow noodles, or battered, or stood on their legs atop a dark-green salad. Vietnamese crickets usually grow to 2.5 cm (0.9 inch) long and the largest can grow up to 4 cm, according to Tung. “Tasty,” said driver Nguyen Trong Thanh, after gingerly picking up a deep fried cricket with his chopsticks, dipping it in spicy fish sauce and then into his mouth. “This is the first time I’ve eaten it and I’m surprised it’s that good.” Throughout the meal, crickets sing in the background. Tung says that after six years of catching and breeding the insects, he knows their character and moods. “When they are angry, the singing is high-pitched and when they are looking for a mate, it is like the sound of violins playing,” he said. Like many Vietnamese of his generation, Tung remembers a childhood fascination with crickets, which they caught to watch them fight for entertainment. The insect has a special place in Vietnamese literature through a book called “The adventure of a cricket” by To Hoai. A picture book and a cartoon film were based on the story. However, the cricket breeder said the real inspiration for his business came from watching a TV documentary about crickets as a culinary delicacy in Thailand and a European report that said eating insects reduced cholesterol. SCORPIONS AND CENTIPEDES Crickets are harmless but Tung also breeds scorpions and venomous giant centipedes. They are two other insects considered delicacies at some restaurants in the nearby city of about 8 million that many still call by its old name, Saigon. The story of Tung and his insects is also one of a young entrepreneur who said he had struggled to make a living breeding rabbits and other animals and growing vegetables. He also tried working on construction sites, a common occupation for men his age in Vietnam’s rapidly developing cities, but hours were long and wages relatively low. In this country of 83 million with per capita annual income of just $640, Tung’s cricket business changed his life as his earnings rose way above average. His business grosses an estimated 90 million dong ($5,625) a month, before paying salaries to 12 workers and other costs. Tung said buyers pay between 250,000 dong ($15) and 450,000 dong ($28) per kg of crickets and he can sell about 300 kg a month. By comparison, one kg of chicken costs 70,000 dong ($4). “There’s a niche in the market, demand is potentially big,” said Tung as he stood in his breeding shed surrounded by hundreds of blue, red and green plastic barrels. In the crowded, narrow streets of the Go Vap district of Ho Chi Minh City, a restaurant called “Cricket” serves the insects cooked in batter or in fish sauce. As beer- and rice wine-drinking customers walk in and out of the three-storey lime green building, manager Nguyen Hong Muong says that, while it caters mostly to locals, “tourists from Japan and Korea and even Russia have come here to eat crickets.” ($1=16,001 dong) (Additional reporting by Nguyen Nhat Lam and Nguyen Van Vinh)

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