Ants on fire

Ken­dall Hill sam­ples some un­usual lo­cal deli­cia­cies in north­east Thai­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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