Giant Water Bug Essence

Giant Water Bug Essence

Giant Water Bug Essence

I purchased the cooking ingredient you see above at an Asian grocery store out of curiosity, and without knowing exactly what it was. I am posting about it, not so much because it is an extremely versatile, or useful ingredient, but rather because it is quite unique and worth trying if you get the chance.

The Ingredient Label from a Bottle of Giant Water Bug Essence
The Ingredient Label from a Bottle of Giant Water Bug Essence

The Bottle itself gave little information about the product, or its source. I really only purchased it because I was unable to resist buying a product with the words ‘Water Giant Bug’ on the bottle, even though I didn’t have even the remotest idea what it might be. The name, I thought, sounded as though it may be one of those ‘poetic’ ones, and not reflective of any actual ingredient, but it definitely made me curious.

The ingredient list, shown above, specified Mangdana extract but, or the time being, I was still no closer to knowing what I was buying.

A Mangdana Beetle
A Mangdana Beetle

Well, naturally, I did a little research and it turns out that ‘Mang Da’ is, in fact, the Thai name for a particular species of water beetle. Above is a picture of the creature in question, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The scientific name is Lethocerus indicus and, although it is difficult to tell from the picture, the bugs can grow up to 4 inches or so in length and are eaten in Thailand and the Philippines. Apparently, the edible portions are sweet and rather like shrimp or scallops in flavor.

The extract appears to be a sexual attractant, or pheromone, that the insect secretes in certain liquid-producing sacs. I gather that the real thing is actually very expensive and that most commercial products are synthetic. Despite using the words ‘extract’ on the label, my little bottle cost only a few dollars, so I rather suspect that I may have the synthetic variety.

What does Giant Water Bug Essence Taste Like?

The scent is quite potent and has a very aromatically fruity quality reminiscent of acetone with a background similar to the pith from a banana skin and faint notes of orange peel. The taste, when taken right from the bottle, mirrors all the qualities of the fragrance but at the end there is a slight acrid taste that is a bit like the ash of a wood fire. The essence is meant to be used very sparingly, however (indeed, one use in soup calls for the merest drop one could pick up with the end of a toothpick), and the acrid after-note would not be apparent in such small amounts.

Using Giant Water Bug Essence

Nuoc Cham Sauce with Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Nuoc Cham Sauce with Vietnamese Spring Rolls

From the taste and aroma, I rather would have thought that this product would primarily be used in confectionary, but, in fact, it seems to be chiefly an additive in savory preparations.  The soup I mentioned above is a Vietnamese specialty in which various ingredients are cooked in a broth of chicken and dried squid to which a tiny amount of the essence is added.

In Thailand, a little is sometimes added to the different chili sauces collectively known as Nam Phrik, and, in Vietnam, to the Nuoc Cham dipping sauce that accompanied various dishes like rice-paper rolls (an example of which is shown above).

I also came across one source that insists the extract is an essential ingredient in Har Gow in Hong Kong (although I confess to never having heard of that anywhere else), and I gather that there is also a Vodka based drink that uses it and has, on occasion, been served with actual bug floating in the glass.

Anyway, I have tried it in both soups and dipping sauces. The best I can say is that there is an appreciable change in flavor, but, for my taste, I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say it was a great enhancement. Still, it was worth trying, and you may like it even more than I did.

Comments, questions or suggestions most welcome!