Ants on fire
Kendall Hill samples some unusual local deliciacies in northeast Thailand
T the entrance to Simsombun market there is a woman selling sacks of what look like wriggling seeds or pods. They come in three sizes: the fat ones are the eggs of queen ants, the small ones are worker ant eggs and the biggest ones, the ones crawling over each other with wings akimbo, are the hatched queens. This is what passes for food in northeast Thailand and I am desperately hoping it is not on the menu today.
This morning visit to Simsombun in Chiang Saen, a small town beside the Mekong River about 720km north of Bangkok, is part of a half-day cooking class run by the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort. My guide is Panat Bantanajak, the resort’s chef and a man not afraid to screw up his face at some of the morsels regarded as delicacies by his northern neighbours. Ants’ eggs, for one, are not to his taste. Nor is he keen on buffalo bile, used as a salad dressing in these parts to lend a bitter taste to raw beef salads.
‘‘ I don’t like,’’ he grimaces as we inspect a stall selling every centimetre of the buffalo, including snack bags of fried skin sold (and eaten) like pork scratchings.
The ants’ eggs and buffalo bile are a vivid introduction to the cuisine of Thailand’s mountainous northeast, which is a mix of northern, Lanna-style cooking (meat curries, sour pork sausage, sticky rice), and Laos-dominated Issan dishes.
Som tum, the fiery green papaya salad popular in Thai restaurants everywhere, is one of its best-known preparations but the Issan diet is famous for getting its protein anywhere it can: from birds, snakes, insects or even frogs. I find two silver tubs of frogs at the market sealed with netting. The creatures are bone-coloured and the size of a man’s fist. Panat insists they are very good seasoned with chilli and herbs and deep-fried to make their bones crisp and edible. Again, I’m hoping they’re not on today’s menu.
Things are not always what they seem at Simsombun; Panat grabs a sugar cane and peels away the husk to reveal not sugar but rice; it’s a gluey stick of faintly sweet pap that we snack on as we make our way around the aisles. At a vegetable stand he grabs a fat bunch of herb and hands it to me.
‘‘ This is our coriander,’’ he says, smiling cryptically
Chef Panat Bantanajak behind the burners at Anantara Golden Triangle Resort cooking school
Take your pick: Members of the cooking class visit Simsombun market to sample fresh produce
Wok and roll: