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Protein with crunch

16-year-old's book focuses on the nutritional value of Thailand's edible insects

Thais are no strangers to such gourmet delights as crickets deep-fried with garlic and chilli and indeed hungry customers queue up every night at the edible insect stalls around town to sink their teeth into a cicada.

They're popular too in other parts of Asia, with bees considered a sign of virility in China and aquatic fly larvae sauteed in sugar and soy sauce a sought-after delicacy in Japan.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Office (FAO)'s recent report, "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security" estimates that about 2 billion people worldwide - largely in Asia, Africa and Latin America - are entomophagists, as people who eat insects are known. It also urges all of us to turn to insects as a protein source and makes the point that the creepy-crawlies are a resource that will allow the world to keep up with its increasing population while saving the environment.

The most commonly edible insect groups, according to FAO, are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and plant-hoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies, all of them a healthy, nutritious alternative to mainstream staples like chicken, pork, beef and even fish.

Prima "Pat" Yontrarak, a 16-year-old student of Harrow International School, is a firm believer in insect power. She chose them as her research subject for an observational scientific project organised by Nanmeebooks and her findings have been published in both English and Thai in "The Poor Land of Plenty: Edible Insects and Other Natural Sources of Nutrients".

"I know that the UN is campaigning for people, especially those in poor countries, to consume edible insects. Given their abundance, it's a good solution to hunger and malnutrition. My research has been sent to the UN

here in Thailand and also to the libraries of neighbouring countries such as Laos, India and Cambodia," says Pat in a post press-conference interview at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

"I never expected my research to be adapted to pocketbook form. I was just aiming to collect several insects and detail them on my website for people who are interested. I've been fascinated by science since my childhood and my dream is to study biochemistry in America. Thailand lacks scientists and researchers but we really need them; they are very important to the development of our country," she adds.

Pat's book examines insects and other dietary sources commonly found in Isaan, the northeastern heartland of Thailand. It also encompasses nutritional value, non-food usage of these sources and their cultivation.

"I couldn't help wonder if the villagers were still healthy and what they consumed as part of their daily lives. At international school, we are encouraged to think about the problem and solve it practically. The knowledge that I could make a difference was the inspiration for me to conduct the research," she says.

The youngster was also involved with the design of her first book, which she wanted to look professional but friendly. It looks at 10 edible insects: Bombay locust, Oriental migratory locust, red ant, house cricket, scarab beetle, dung beetle, giant water bug, Oriental mole cricket, cicada and alate.

"In the villages, I asked the children and teachers about the kind of insects that are most popularly eaten," says Pat. "I tasted phad phed ngoo singha [spicy fried Indochinese rat snake] and yam khai mod daeng (Isaan ant eggs salad) and found them surprisingly good. As a child, I spent lots of time in Pak Chong and often helped the villagers catch insects.

"I was very surprised at the life cycle of the jakajan [cicada], which is more or less in the same form as it was 200 million years ago. It spends 16 years underground before emerging outside for two months where it moults and then dies. Cicadas have a high nutritional value and contain more protein than pork, beef and chicken.

"The main obstacle to conducting research was the lack of information on the nutritional value of several insects, which doesn't appear on the Internet or in books. I did find out the nutritional value of insects for chameleons though!"

While Pat likes insects, she admits to hating reptiles and says she shudders when she sees a chameleon.

She's now turned her attention to chitin, a biodegradable polymer found in the shells of golden apple snails and crabs, which has several commercial uses.

"Fishermen take tonnes of golden apple snails but get only a tiny amount of a little bit of chitin. I'm looking at ways of how it can be abstracted. It's useful for agriculture, cosmetics and medicine," she says.

Her motto is "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted", explaining: "If we want to help anyone, even if it's just a little, the action isn't wasted. It is beneficial to people's lives.

"I would like this book to be an inspiration for the new generation of Thai kids to understand a different way of thinking and carry out their own research. Most of them just study theory in the classroom. It's far more important to gain knowledge from practice."

CHEW ON THIS

- Pat's complete, unabridged compendium of edible insects is available online at PoorLandOfPlenty.com.


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