Experience 25: Eating authentic bugs in Bangkok
by Christa Larwood
The world has an ongoing love affair with Thai food. Gloopy, sweet-spicy piles of pad Thai, sour tom yum soup and classic curries jauntily topped with kaffir lime leaves are slurped from San Francisco to Sydney. These dishes are also a staple in their home country, served up at the steaming, spitting food stalls that line the streets of the Thai capital, Bangkok.
When it comes to lesser-known Thai specialities, however, visitors to the city’s tourism hotspots are often misled when trays of deep-fried scorpions and cockroaches are thrust under their noses. These are, according to vendors, ‘local delicacies’ and they are pounced upon with shrieks of laughter by the curious and the drunken. But it’s a fallacy played up for tourists. Ask a native Bangkok resident how they like their scorpions and a disdainful look is the standard reply.
In an attempt to discover some more genuine local cuisine, we headed to the Or Tor Kor market, around 15 kilometres north of the city centre. Considered one of the great fresh food markets of the world, this is where local farmers bring their produce and locals vie for the choicest morsels with Bangkok restaurateurs.
It’s an unlovely space – low and concrete-roofed, with rust-freckled pipes and flat fluorescent lighting – but this is barely noticeable because at stall level it’s a vast and glorious sea of the delectable and the strange.
Bright, tight-skinned fruits of every conceivable shape and colour, shimmering rows of goggle-eyed raw fish, barrel-sized pots of soup effervescing fragrantly in a day-long simmer. There were delicate crispy cakes drizzled with palm sugar sitting alongside neat bags of dried fish heads and steaming bowls of web-like white tripe.
We wandered the market’s long aisles and gorged ourselves. First the fruit: mangosteens, looking like a green-hatted passionfruits but tasting sweetly of nectarines; spiny red rambutans with their delicate lychee-esque innards; and of course the notorious durian – the spiked green fruit whose pong famously reminds people of old socks or rotting flesh. But so fresh were the durians on display that not a whiff of malodour spoiled the tasting experience. (That was spoilt by the taste itself, alas, which vaguely approximates a strange cheesy onion-laced potato with a hint of pineapple, if you ask me.)
Even better were the desserts – puddings in unnatural shades of pink and blue drowned in a gold-tinged syrup, and dumplings made with tapioca and spiced nuts, served with grass-like slivers of chili.
Oli was tasked with sampling the more adventurous fare. He gnawed gamely on a duck’s beak and went back for seconds of the fried pig’s ears, liberally smothered in a sauce of green chillies and coriander.
At some stalls, we found insects that are enjoyed on dinner tables throughout this region – not scorpions but maeng da or giant water bugs. Soon, five fat beauties were chopped up and tossed into a wok, to be served up minutes later as a delicious bug-and-papaya salad. Knowing my weak will and trebuchet-like gag reflex, Oli valiantly took up the chopsticks, but after a moment’s thoughtful chewing, his eyes widened and face screwed up. ‘That,’ he said, between swallows of water and sour-faced swabbings of his tongue, ‘is disgusting.’
So clearly not all Thai cuisine is universally loveable. For a brief moment we contemplate this profound observation, then, by silent consensus, we head back to the dessert section for a second round.