Regional Thai Food

7This one is my version of “The Beetles greatest hits” as I actually fell in love with this dish a few weeks ago and I’ve been pestering to see it made ever since.

I am pretending that I am doing this for posterity – for you, the reader. In actual fact it is selfish. I just like it and want to know how to make it so I can show off in front of my Thai chef friends and colleagues;-)

I have to admit that there is something a bit disconcerting about shoving a creature into your mouth that looks very much like a giant cockroach. You wouldn’t imagine it from my writing, but I am actually just like you. If someone had suggested ten years ago that I would rock up to a street vendor, hand over 10 baht, and chug a massive crawly thing with wings and half a dozen crunchy legs semi tucked under its shiny carapace, the expletives would have flown from my lips like a plague of (un-fried) locusts heading across Egypt. Laugh? I would have shat.

It was actually a very late night, a few beers into the evening on my fourth trip to Thailand when I was persuaded to have a crack at the grasshoppers. I actually persuaded myself, no cattle prod needed. Surprisingly, I found them a little like crisps. Flavoursome, crunchy and great with a beer. Getting my head around it was the hardest part. I had broken some sort of barrier, and far from being proud or boastful I found myself quite introspective, looking into the reasons for my terror of trying these things previously. I am not as weird as you may think.

A friend, Simon, asked today if I was a bit put out by all this weird food. My response was that yes, I was. Things like Twinkies, Steak and kidney pies, French style crumbed lambs brains and Kazakh attempts at Pizza freak the hell out of me. Natto too, which is a sticky, slimy Japanese fermented rice thing which I once had the displeasure of putting in my mouth. I am not big into guts and offal, and I also recall my teenage days when I recoiled in horror at the thought of anyone eating raw fish. Those whale-killing Japanese bastards ate RAW BLOODY FISH! I couldn’t believe it. Young kiwi boys with long hair and AC-DC T-shirts couldn’t possibly ‘get it’ back then. There was just a healthy distrust of foreigners and the ‘weird crap’ they passed off as food.

Fast forward a few years and I have run two successful Japanese restaurants and have a great appreciation for the cuisine and people. I am SO glad I didn’t do the TAFE course back then that taught me how to make prosciutto, then rolled ham, then salami – and finally the popular cocktail sausages + polonies that we all know and love with their red food colouring and nasty gunk scraped off the board and made from the leftovers.

I would also dare you ALL to look closely into what goes into a chicken McNugget too, and then eat one – ever again. .

Like anything, it is a little about getting outside of the comfort zone and exploring our rationale for doing what we do, eating what we eat, and retaining the opinions and attitudes we grew up with. Some of us do, some of us don’t. I truly believe that travel does force us to re-explore our convictions and raison d’etre – even if some of those discoveries are things we would rather have left more comfortably in the closet. (Don’t worry – I won’t start talking about the whipped cream aerosol and the batman suit.)

But back to the Maeng Da – I was sitting in a bar in Bangkok on holiday many moons ago, tucking into fried grasshoppers and teasing a clothing vendor who was eating Maeng da – these big water beetles. She was a great sport – but she turned it back onto me and offered me one.

I screwed up my nose in disgust and she gestured “No” “Not eat like that” – then she showed me – opening the carapace and revealing the interior which looked like caviar. She offered it to me, and then tried some, showing me it was OK. THIS was what we ate – not the whole shebang.

I scraped it off and tried it – the flavour was intense but strangely pleasant. Not bug-like at all. It seemed to be strangely familiar – but at the same time so very foreign.

It had the pungency of a perfume or detergent – words can barely explain – but the freshness of lime or citrus with an indescribable top note.

That was long ago, and it popped up into my existence on this planet again a couple of weeks ago in an innocuous looking dip.

I was being watched as I dipped the ball of sticky rice into the greyish matter.

It looked like babaganoush – roasted eggplant dip, but I knew it wasn’t.

I thought it was a fish ‘nam prik’ and I wasn’t far off. It had “Maeng Da” inside and from my first mouthful I was hooked. It’s like the first time you taste a cocktail or a drink that has a spirit or liqueur that really appeals to you. You recognise the taste and it forms a memory – a longing and a flavour profile that lingers like a ghost in a dream. Is it real? What part of the dish IS it? You want to de-construct it and understand. I had to see the process and document it for your benefit (I told myself) but really it was for my own.

The fact that this was mashed into a dip didn’t hurt either. there was no plump shiny hexapod to contend with – only a creamy textured dish with an incredible taste.

We picked up the bugs from the market.

They are called Maeng Da, which means ‘pimp’. As in ‘sells hookers’. Just like the big felt-hatted Negroes with fashion-murdering flares and platform heels as featured in ‘Austin Powers’.

These are water beetles that skim the surface of ponds in the wet season – so ‘Dad’ was a bit freaked out at having to shell out 12 baht each to buy them for me – being expensive due to the lack of rain thus far into the season.

Never mind. I stumped up the 60 baht for 5 each and another 40 baht for a couple of wriggling catfish, and we drove home ready for the upcoming feast. I don’t tell the story anywhere near as well as my trusty camera, so let me scribble the recipe below and run through it with you. If you can get your head around this, it’s an awesome thing to try. The step-by-step photos can be found on my website if you are curious to see the visuals.

  • 2 each small catfish
  • Lemongrass
  • Salt
  • Water for poaching
  • Maaeng da water beetles – 3 each
  • Chillies – 3 each – toasted over a gas or wood fire flame
  • Garlic – 3-4 cloves
  • Salt – to taste
  • Roasted dry red chilli flakes – 1 dsp
  • Coriander – 2 dsp chopped fresh
  • Spring onion – 1-2 each

Method

  1. Put catfish in a pot with water, crushed lemongrass twisted into a knot, and some salt to taste
  2. Simmer until cooked through.
  3. Remove the fish – take the flesh off the bones and set aside.
  4. Strain and reserve the fish cooking liquid (lemongrass fish stock)
  5. Skewer the Maeng Da water beetles
  6. Hold over a gas flame and toast for a minute or two until cooked through and aromatic
  7. Add the garlic to a mortar and pestle and crush by pounding
  8. Add the flame roasted chillies and mpound also to combine with the garlic.
  9. Finely chop the whole Maeng Da beetles and pound to a soft paste until the shells are pureed
  10. Add the fish and pound to a paste
  11. Add the toasted chilli flakes, coriander and chopped spring onion.
  12. Stir in enough lemongrass fish poaching stock to bring it to a soft dipping consistency.
  13. Mix together to combine
  14. Serve and top with freshly chopped spring onion.
  15. Serve with fresh boiled vegetables. We used boiled baby loofah (gourd) and Thai ‘praya’ eggplants, boiled until soft.

Also served with sticky rice. This was an incredible and memorable dish. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, and I have tried quite a few weird and wonderful dishes, many of which appear on my site along with ‘regular’ Thai recipes. I’d love your comments, feedback, questions, suggestions, abuse and expressions of horror. Please come and visit.