Spotlight On: Giant Water Bug (Mang Da)


Let’s be honest. Besides two extra pairs of legs, is there any real difference between eating an aquatic insect and eating an aquatic crustacean? If you can eat a shrimp, a crab, or a lobster, why not a giant water bug?

I’m not talking about the Oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis), nicknamed “water bug” in the United States, but the genuine article, genus Lethocerus. Closer to cicadas than roaches, giant water bugs are classified as “true bugs,” and are also truly aquatic. Except for the occasional mating flight, their lives are spent submerged in fresh water, breathing through a natural snorkel and spearing prey with a natural harpoon. Some species grow to nearly five inches, large enough to prey on vertebrates like fish, frogs and baby turtles. Their syringe-like proboscis can deliver a nasty sting to a human being; though not nasty enough to keep that vertebrate from preying on them in turn.


You’d never know one of the main ingredients in this dish is a giant insect. Right?


Water bugs of the species Lethocerus indicus are a regional delicacy in Southeast Asia, eaten in parts of the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand is probably the country that makes the widest culinary use of the insect, locally called แมงดา, mang da (mang sounds like meng).* It’s even entered slang as part of the rich Thai vocabulary for animal insults: pimps are called mang da because of a shared tendency to buzz around street-lamps by night.


These defrosted mang da have been dipped in warm water to remove the salt they were packed in. You can smell the musk already.


In Thai cuisine, the larger female mang da are cooked and eaten whole. The smaller males, awash in fragrant pheromones, are ground up with chilis and garlic to make a kind of nam prik, spicy relish that is spooned onto mild ingredients like raw vegetables. So what do the bugs taste like? A little like shrimp, of course. But mostly, like nothing else in the world. The flavor of the male bugs’ mating hormones is so distinct it can be captured and bottled as a colorless mang da “essence,” or even synthesized artificially.

Ever since I first learned about mang da and its essence, I was entranced. I blame all those hours I spent as a kid playing Morrowind, a game in which you can temporarily boost your personality by swigging a rare and valuable potion called Telvanni bug musk. Determined for the past several years to taste water bugs for myself, I’ve searched Asian markets, badgered Thai and Vietnamese foodies, and gone bug-hunting among the street-food stalls of Saigon; all to no avail. I always had so much trouble acquiring bug musk in Morrowind; was I doomed to the same fate in real life?

When I walked into a small grocery store called 3 Aunties Thai Market in Woodside, Queens, I wasn’t expecting to find mang da specifically, but I looked for it, as I always do in stores with a lot of Thai products. To my great surprise, I found nam prik mang da sitting discretely among other types of chili sauce. It was made with artificial Telvanni bug musk water bug essence. “Oh well,” I thought. “That’s the closest I’ll get to the real thing without going to Thailand. I’d better buy it.”


น้ำพริกแมงดา (nam prik mang da). Because of the slang meaning of mang da, if you run this into Google Translate it comes out as “chili pimp.”


The young cashier gave me a concerned look when I placed the jar in front of her. “Do you know what this is?” she asked. I nodded. “It’s a giant insect, right? But this is artificial.” In a few words I tried to summarize my obsession and my long, fruitless water bug search. She laughed. “Do you want them? I have them frozen.”

My eyes grew wide as the woman dug deep into the freezer, reaching under packages of fish, ice cream and silkworm pupae before finally pulling out a small Styrofoam container of what were unmistakably whole mang da. Even after that, she seemed surprised and amused when I wanted to actually purchase the insects ($3.50). I told her I had heard the flavor is very unique, and she agreed.

At home, I tasted the artificial nam prik mang da on sliced raw veggies such as carrot, celery, cucumber and Thai eggplant. Later, I used the real bugs to make nam prik mang da from scratch.


Note that the package is labelled “Not for human consumption,” but includes nutrition facts…..



I was unable to find a written recipe for nam prik mang da in English online. By searching for it in Thai (น้ำพริกแมงดา), I found the video below:

Lacking some of the ingredients used in the video, I followed the ingredients of the artificial nam prik mang da more closely. I also roasted the garlic, chilis and shallots before mashing them, following a suggestion from this and other nam prik recipes online.

  • 4 whole giant water bugs (mang da), gently rinsed, wings removed
  • 8 cloves of garlic, roasted until soft and fragrant
  • 1 European shallot, or 4-6 tiny Thai shallots, roasted with the garlic
  • 1 cup dried chili peppers, gently toasted (Thai bird chilies or other small red chili)
  • 2 teaspoons tamarind concentrate
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fermented shrimp paste (Various forms of shrimp paste can be found in Asian markets. Thai kapi is most authentic, but I used the similar Korean saeu-jeot. Some chefs roast kapi first to release its flavor.)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Above: water bug and garlic.


Combine all the ingredients in a mortar and pestle or food processor and blend into a thick paste: first the water bugs, then the garlic and shallots, then the chilies, then the other ingredients.

Serve as a topping for morsels of meat, fish or vegetables, with or without jasmine rice.



Top: homemade nam prik mang da made with real water bugs. Bottom: store-bought made with artificial bug essence. Did I mention that the Morrowind bug musk is actually described as “a dark, red-brown paste”?


I’ve heard that mang da essence is so powerful it has to be added to dishes as a droplet on the end of a toothpick. The store-bought nam prik contains only 1% essence, but it permeated my nostrils from the moment I opened the jar. I could feel it in my nose and mouth, like alcohol or the powerful musk of a stink bug, which it probably shares more than a few molecules with. The Greek poet Sappho described her love for another woman not as bittersweet but “sweetbitter” (glukúpikron). That’s how I would describe the initial scent of mang da: sweetbitter.

And it smells exactly how it tastes. There are two competing flavors, as though you had decided to eat two different jellybeans together: one fruit, one licorice. I was reminded of sweet anise or tarragon on the one hand, pear or green apple on the other. The flavor seems to linger with a hint of a cooling sensation, like mint or Szechuan pepper.

Of the two water bug chili sauces, the store-bought has a more overpowering flavor of water bug, perhaps to be expected from an artificial extract. The store-bought nam prik is also softer, redder and much sweeter than the homemade, even after I added sugar. In my opinion the sugar isn’t necessary, since mang da has a lot of sweetness on its own. Amplified with garlic and chilies, it is flowery, insistent, incongruous. Triumphant.

Homer wrote that ambrosia, the edible perfume of the gods, sprang from the earth and was carried to Olympus by doves. Perhaps this was a clerical error, and he meant to say “giant water bugs.”IMG_7459

* You may find แมงดา transliterated mangda or maeng da (which to my eyes is closest to the actual pronunciation), but mang da is the most common. The word can also mean horseshoe crab, another quirky invertebrate eaten in Thailand.

I’m Back! Here’s What I Ate


I told you my next blog post would be delayed…..

I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit both Saigon, Vietnam and Hong Kong on vacation with my parents and my boyfriend. In between all the historic sites, markets, temples, museums, gay bars, etc, etc that we visited, I got to eat a lot of great food, including many dishes (and animals) I had never tried before. Here are the most interesting or memorable things I ate for the first time during my trip, and what I thought of them.

Bánh xèo : I had this several times in Vietnam and really fell in love with it. It’s a crispy rice flour crepe, bright yellow from turmeric, folded over various fillings like bean sprouts, mushrooms and shrimp. To eat it, you cut a slice of the crepe, wrap in lettuce and fresh herbs, pick up with your hands and dip in nước chấm, a sweet and salty dipping sauce. Aside from the intricate combination of flavors and textures and the fun of putting it all together, it has an excellent name: bánh, from French pan, is the Vietnamese word for cake or bread. Xèo is onomatopoeia for the sizzling sseeooww sound the batter makes when dropped into a hot skillet. I like to translate it as “sizzlecake.”

Centella juice : Called rau má in Vietnamese, centella is an herb with medicinal properties. I had never heard of it before seeing it on a menu in Saigon. It was served as a dark green smoothie that tasted exactly like raw green beans mixed with sugar. I finished it, but I don’t think I’d order it again.

Fruit : In Vietnam I tried several kinds of fresh fruit, including the delicious sweet-and-sour mangosteen, the enormous jackfruit and pomelo, and the funky-looking wax apple (which I hated). Not to mention ramubtan, durian, and various other awesome tropical fruits I’ve had the opportunity to eat in the past. I also had the first good dragonfruit I’ve ever eaten; in Vietnam they were quite flavorful, but the ones in the USA always seem to taste like crunchy, expensive water. Vietnamese people sometimes dip fruit into salty dried shrimp powder, which I rather enjoyed (although it still wasn’t enough to make me like wax apple. Blegh.)

19577368_10158947633785574_8523507010846434711_o.jpgMolten salted egg yolk French toast : This is not Hong Kong French toast, which is also a thing, but the specialty gimmick of a particular dim sum place in Hong Kong. Slice into the crispy fried toast and bright yellow egg yolk, which is both salty and sweet, oozes all over your plate. Or, get the even sweeter variation filled with bright purple taro. We got both, along with a few other items. I guess I go straight for the carbs, because when we first tried to place our order, the waitress advised us against ordering “too much bread”. Followed her suggestion, but still felt about ready to roll down the hills of Hong Kong after that meal. Worth it.

Jellyfish : In Hong Kong. The Romans ate this quite a bit, so I naturally had to try. I liked it! Cut into fine, pale yellowish strips, it had a chewy, slightly rubbery texture, like certain kinds of seaweed. It was served cold and didn’t have much flavor except the seasoning (sesame oil and seeds with a hint of chili).

Goose : Also in Hong Kong, barbecued. Not really that far outside my experience, really, but I never tried it before. Tasted just like duck.


Fruit market in Hong Kong

Giant cuttlefish : Pictured above. I am still trying to identify the exact species of this minor spawn of Cthulhu, which was chopped into cubes with a huge cleaver and spooned into a styrofoam cup in Tai O, a small traditional fishing village on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. The meat was sweet and tender, like crab or scallops, and did not resemble squid at all.

Dessert soups : This is a feature of Cantonese cuisine that was new to me. At the memorably-named restaurant Kai Kai, I tasted a sweet gingery broth full of little sesame dumplings, served hot, plus two soups served cold: an amped-up fruit cocktail with chunks of papaya in syrup, and another that was creamy with sago, taro and lotus nuts. I can’t think of a better way to end a hot, humid Hong Kong day in June.

Fertilized duck egg : Called hột vịt lộn in Vietnamese, and more commonly known in the USA by its Filipino name, balut, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a fertilized duck egg with a baby duck embryo inside. I’ve been wanting to try this for something like twelve years, and thus had to capture the moment of truth on video.

The egg was served piping hot with salt, pepper, lime, and an herb that I later discovered is called rau răm (Persicaria odorata or Vietnamese coriander). In the background you can hear the videographer/our friend Băng, who took us to the place and ordered me the egg (thanks dude!), and my boyfriend Shawn, who grudgingly observed while eating a much less-exciting bowl of phở. This happened after we had already had one fruitless search for the eggs–the first night we tried, we didn’t realize it was a Buddhist holiday and many vendors do not sell them on those days.

Overall this trip was an incredible experience, even if I didn’t get to eat giant water bug in Vietnam as I was hoping to. My mistake; Saigon is in the far south of the country, and it turns out the bugs are a regional northern delicacy, and not even that widely-known elsewhere. I think an equivalent would be going to NYC and being disappointed you couldn’t find a place to eat squirrel.

New ancient recipe coming soon!


Bonus food item I didn’t try: you can buy vacuum-sealed, fully-cooked corn on the cob at 7/11 in Hong Kong. The writing on the package is in Japanese.