LETTER FROM UBON
by JENNIFER GAMPELL
FOR MOST OF US Western foodies, an encounter with an edible version of something we'd rather run from or swat can be somewhat fraught. But you can't claim to have tried the local cuisine of the hot and arid northeastern quadrant of Thailand known as Isaan without sampling an insect. Until the economic boom of the early 1990's, this predominantly agrarian region was the poorest in Thailand, and the myriad creatures that flew, crawled, swam or burrowed therein represented tasty and cheap sources of dietary protein.
My own walk on the buggy side began in Ubon Ratchathani (usually shortened to Ubon), capital of the province of the same name, which is also the largest in Isaan. Despite the omnipresence of global fast-food chains like KFC and Pizza Hut in Ubon, the consumption of insects (including larvae), frogs and other critters remains as commonplace today as dumping five teaspoonfuls of roasted ground chili into a bowl of noodle soup.
To appreciate the place of insects in daily Ubon life, drive 20 miles or so west of the capital toward the neighboring province of Sisaket and look for a stretch of four-lane road several hundred yards long that is lined on either side with small wooden stalls and parked cars. Many Thai provinces are celebrated for signature foodstuffs or products that are retailed in great quantities alongside major thoroughfares. Judging by the items sold here, what announces "you're driving through Ubon province" is red ant larvae, other insects, scorpions and frogs.
The creatures that haven't already been skewered and grilled or deep-fried lie in semiconscious states on banana leaves or in bowls and bags. These still-wriggling results of last night's catch might upset those of us who don't cull our food from nearby trees, rivers and rice paddies, but their intermittent signs of life reassure potential purchasers that no pesticides were used in the capture.
My first bug-eating experience occurred in more prosaic surroundings. A Thai friend and I were sitting cross-legged in one of the hundreds of low-slung thatched huts floating on the Moon River at Haad Khu Dua on the western outskirts of Ubon. This 40-year-old so-called resort is actually a collection of tiny bamboo eating places spread out along 500 yards of riverbank. Each similar-looking restaurant boasts at least two rows of open-sided A-frame dining areas that sit atop plastic pontoons tethered to rickety jetties. Dining en masse is a venerable Thai tradition, and generations of families come here to while away afternoons and evenings in alternating rounds of eating, drinking and snoozing.
A waitress negotiated the narrow plank walkway leading down from the onshore kitchen area to our floating "dining room" and knelt to crawl along the woven plastic floor mat and unload our order of gai op fang. (This Ubon delicacy consists of a whole chicken stuffed with lemon grass and pandanus leaves, rubbed on the outside with crushed herbs, covered with a makeshift lid and slow-cooked on a bed of coconut husks.) In my personal sublimity sweepstakes, the perfectly spiced, succulent fowl and the sun dipping below the rolling green hills on the opposite bank were neck and neck for first place.
Onto this hyperpastoral scene glided a small, hand-hewn wooden craft, propelled by a smiling oarswoman sporting a straw hat. She rowed her aquatic incarnation of the ubiquitous three-wheeled Thai street cart in and out among the restaurants, purveying peanuts, fruit, fried insects (grasshoppers, crickets, water beetles) and black scorpions (technically classified as venomous arachnids). At 50 baht ($1.33 at 39.24 baht to the dollar) for three small bags, I really couldn't use price as a disincentive to trying one.
Crunchiness and sogginess are, respectively, the most and least desirable physical attributes of any food I eat. These rankings informed my selection, which included a bag each of everything except the large brown water beetles. Apart from its huge, squishy-looking midsection, the shiny blue-black scorpion presented more crunchy bits than the crickets or grasshoppers. I randomly picked a four-inch candidate, pulled off its legs, tail and claws, took a deep breath, shoved the lot in my mouth and started chewing.
As so often happens in these situations, the reality of scorpion eating was orders of magnitude less terrifying than my fear of it. The appendages were suitably crunchy (except for the unchewable claws), although rancid frying oil and too much salt spoiled the overall experience. Having thus conquered my squeamishness, I had some grasshoppers (crispy) and crickets (slightly soft but small enough to eat quickly) and asked my Thai friend whether fried bugs always tasted this greasy and salty.
By way of an answer she drove me to one of her favorite late-night haunts, a streetside restaurant near Ubon airport (which the United States built during the Vietnam War). Beyond knowing the road (Uparison), I can't guide anyone to it because like every other popular restaurant in Ubon it's far too local to merit an English name.
The friendly founder of this 35-year-old open-air restaurant, renowned for its many varieties of fiery Isaan salad (som tam) and tasty cooked bugs, reigns over her domain from the relative comfort of a bench near the prep table. Decades of pounding the essential som tam ingredients — chili and shredded green papaya — wore out her arms, and she recently passed the pestle on to her daughter.
Health consciousness has reached the frying pans and woks of Ubon insect chefs; many now cook with dry heat instead of gallons of oil. I ordered a small plate of mounded grayish-brown flies (nobody knew their English nomenclature) that had been pan-fried with slivers of lemon grass. To accompany them I chose a type of som tam made with khanom chin (thin rice flour noodles) with the standard additives of lemon juice, palm sugar, peanuts and dried shrimp.
Using tiny rolled balls of sticky rice as shovels, I demolished everything — along with whatever residual bug phobias I still possessed — in under 10 minutes. Based on my admittedly limited experience I can say pan frying easily tops the other method, at least for tender or lightly carapaced creatures that aren't destined to spend long hours outdoors in the heat.
Unfortunately time didn't permit me to try the many other variations on the bug theme such as: raw (chopped and added to chili-based sauces and salads), steamed (in a banana leaf with curry sauce) or soaked in whiskey (a scorpion-based homegrown Viagra substitute for men). Not to mention the entire panoply of non-insect cuisine for which Ubon and the rest of Isaan are renowned. But I'll definitely be coming back here again. Once you've eaten scorpion, everything else is a piece of cake.
© 2006 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell