Debugging Nam Prik Mang Da, Thailand’s Water Beetle Chile Paste

Bugs have been flitting onto the RSS feeds of sustainable-food progressives these days like Lepidoptera to a porch light. Will insect-eating—er, entomophagy, a word that makes most readers stumble the way a plate of glistening white larvae makes almost everybody gag—save the planet? Will fried crickets someday take the place of feedlot T-bones, easing environmental stresses while feeding Americans’ endless appetite for protein?

Don’t count on it.

Meanwhile, in parts of the planet where food animals aren’t limited to the hooved and the doe-eyed, insects have long been used in less overtly meaty ways, as flavoring elements, for instance. That’s the case with the Thai condiment nam prik mang da, a chile paste that incorporates pounded giant water beetles (Lethocerus indicus).

I scored a plastic container of the stuff a few months ago in Richmond, California, a city north of Oakland. At a takeout shop called Ran Kanom Thai, Bangkok-born Salalinee Ekchit pounds and sells curry pastes and condiments, including what she calls “mangda spicy chili paste,” nam prik flavored with water beetle, along with tamarind and fish sauce.

The taste: dark and raisiny, underneath the chiles’ bite, with a metallic whiff that reminded me of tarragon, and a slightly numbing sensation on the tongue. The smell? Mysteriously flowery, easy to fall in love with, though finding out exactly how Ekchit incorporates the bugs—or even if she uses actual beetles—has been somewhat harder. Even after asking (we had language issues), I wasn’t sure if Ekchit pounds up actual bugs in her nam prik mang da or uses water-beetle essence.

Chances are it’s the latter. Pitchaya Sudbanthad, a New York writer with roots in Bangkok, says he’s yet to find nam prik mang da on Thai menus in the U.S., though that’s partly because nam prik itself doesn’t show up much in Thai-American restaurants. Anyway, Sudbanthad explains via email, “add the fact that you’re talking about entomophagy, which American tastebuds are simply not ready for, and it’s a difficult sell on a commercial level for Thai restaurants.” Thai and pan-Asian grocery stores here do sometimes sell small jars of nam prik mang da and vials of the essence (most of it synthetic, Sudbanthad says).

“Its allure is not a matter of taste as much as scent, as with truffles,” Sudbanthad says. And the scent, he says, is intensely floral.

Bangkok native Pim Techamuanvivit, who blogs at Chez Pim, agrees that mang da is a scent, but also a feeling—numbing, she says, like Sichuan pepper. “You don’t really eat the insect itself; you use it for the scent, and that sensation.”

As for the bugs themselves, a lot of Thais don’t even eat them, says Sudbanthad. He’s munched deep-fried grasshoppers and bamboo worms, but, he explains, "these aren’t an everyday thing for most Thais.” Bugs are primarily country food, especially in northeast Thailand, though tourist areas of Bangkok and other cities do a good business in them, if only for their power to freak out foreigners.

And hey, planet-saving potential aside, isn’t that the point of the current crop of insect-eating stories? To make us shiver at the sight of a woman slurping mealworms?

Image source: Chris Rochelle/CHOW.com