CHIANG MAI, Thailand I broke open my omelet and ant eggs spilled out. They were glistening white, the size of Rice Krispies. I sat up and took a breath. Could I stomach this?
Before I arrived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai in search of insect cuisine, I envisioned a scene out of "Fear Factor." Cages of chirping crickets. Piles of squirming worms. Instead, the bugs were presented in a most unthreatening way on a tattered board advertising the daily specials bee larvae wrapped in banana leaves and bamboo worms fried with salt.
The owner's husband, Suwatchai Thipayanon, rushed over to greet me and led me to a tiny table covered in banana leaves. Cigarette smoke mingled with the smell of beer. A Thai love song wafted through the mostly empty establishment.
With only one other table to serve, the waiters gathered around and offered up bemused smiles when their foreign visitor insisted on ordering all the insects on the menu.
The sounds of crackling oil emerged from the kitchen, and five plates were soon laid out in front of me. Decorated with chili peppers, tomatoes and lettuce, they were piled high with two types of blackened crickets, battered wasp larvae, bee larvae and bamboo worms.
It was all a bit intimidating. My pulse quickened. Eating bugs may be well accepted in Thailand and dozens of other countries, but not where I grew up in Golden Valley, Minn.
This was a thrill I would remember for a long time.
I chose a half-inch-long cricket to start and gobbled it down, spindly legs and all. To my surprise, it had a crunch consistent with shrimp or peanuts and a slight woodsy taste. Next up, the cakelike bee larvae. They tasted sweet and were as soft as marshmallows. I was on a roll. But then I came up against the wasp larvae, complete with bulging eyes. Their oily taste made me gag. I reached for a glass of water as my stomach tightened.
A glutton for punishment or insects I then headed to the family's other restaurant across the busy roadway.
The regal-looking owner, Jitsophit Thipayanon, offered up an "I dare you" smile as she invited me to try her insect selection.
Jitsophit said she was the first in the family to open a restaurant, a decade ago, and the customers had clearly rewarded her. Tables were full of ogling couples and extended families. A Heineken girl made the rounds, serving up beer. Hawkers strolled through, offering garlands of lavender.
Waiters rushed in and out of the kitchen with herb salad, fish and vegetable soup and, of course, insects mostly soups with ant eggs, which were in season.
The place had a lived-in feel, similar to a local bar in an American city. On the walls were covered photos of relatives, prominent Buddhist monks and Thailand's royal family, as displayed in almost every Thai business. Signs advertising local beer competed for space with red and gold Buddhist prayer banners.
My order quickly arrived, and I found myself again surrounded by cooked bugs. I figured the worst would be the water bugs. Black and brown and almost two inches long with small claws, they smelled liked used socks.
I took one bite and swallowed hard. They had the consistency of leather and a taste that I imagine was akin to rotting leaves.
Jitsophit tried to be helpful. Perhaps if you ate them with a bit of hot sauce, she suggested. Or maybe with some sticky rice, a staple in northern Thailand.
"No thanks," I said politely, and moved on to the omelet. With no sign of ant eggs, I thought maybe I had caught a break.
But when I pierced it with my fork, the eggs spilled out in such a rush that I thought they were alive. Waiting a moment to confirm they weren't, I scooped a forkful into my mouth. Not bad, I thought. Crunchy and slightly sweet.