May 10, 2012

Do you like this?

First dates are awkward. The other night I sat across from this very lovely woman who was desperately trying to have a normal conversation with me when she asked a fateful question. “Have you found anything interesting to eat lately?”

Moments like these can make or break an evening and mean the difference between a tender kiss good night or a panicked drop-and-roll from the still-moving car as I pull up to her house. Because I sometimes have the dating instincts of Seth Brundle I responded with this little gem of an answer. “I’ve been exceptionally entomophagic this week. Sure, we all get a little entomophagic from time to time, but this week I really let my inner entomophage cut loose with beondegi, kai mod daeng, and even mangda paste from Thailand.”  

Cue the blank stare followed by a visibly uncomfortable smile.  

I was going to explain to her that entomophagy is the practice of eating insects, something that humans have always done and continue to do to this day. I could have explained how the recent concern over Starbucks using ground cochineal (a tiny insect) as a coloring in one of their drinks is overblown since cochineal has been used in a wide range of foods for decades. I was going to tell her how nutritional insects are and that if we ate more insects it would take a huge burden off of the environment through reducing the demand for other proteins. That’s what I would have said if she had come back from the bathroom. Instead I was left with a half bottle of wine and the promise of sensuous self-love to come.

This all started about a week earlier when I stumbled on a few packages of cooked silkworm pupae (beondegi) while I was digging around in the back freezers of Asian Market on Lee Highway. I mentioned the silkworms to my friends at Asian Food & Gifts on Hixson Pike and was quickly whisked over to a freezer and handed a container of red ant larvae used to make kai mod daeng and then shown a jar of mangda chili paste (mangda being a large water beetle that is ground with spices and aromatics into a paste).  Within two hours, I had located the main ingredients for three edible insect dishes right here in Chattanooga. Lucky me.  

I decided to roast the silkworm pupae two ways: one batch with Chinese spices and the other tossed with Sriracha, green onions and peppers. I made a Thai dish, Kai Mot Phat, with the red ant eggs stir-fried in chilies, lemon grass and fish sauce. Finally, I made Nam Prik Mangda with steamed vegetables and sticky rice. Strangely enough, my adventurous eater friends were unexpectedly busy that night, so I decided to make a generously poured libation and try to overcome more than 40 years of prejudice against eating insects in one daring solo meal.

Maybe it was the vodka, but I kind of enjoyed the Kai Mot Phat. The ant eggs provided a sour, slightly citrus contrast to the chilies and fish sauce. The Nam Prik Mangda was only slightly less appealing with its dark, fibrous texture and mildly metallic yet flowery smell, which I understand is the primary contribution of the water beetle. Then came the silkworms.

I’ve seen Andrew Zimmern eat praying mantis lips, scorpion scrotum and whatever else someone hands him on “Bizarre Foods” and have always maintained I would try anything anyone else considers food. But the roasting silkworms smelled like Snookie’s bathroom after a long night on the Shore—a mixture of burning hair, musty taint and boiled peanuts. They tasted earthy and nutty, which is another way of saying they tasted like dirty, mildewed nuts. The almost burnt ones were the least offensive—crunchy outside and slightly firm inside. The rest were still a bit crunchy on the outside, but gave me an unexpected money shot of slightly viscous liquid when I bit into it. Let’s just say the silkworms were “challenging.”

If my foray into entomophagy did nothing else, it solidified the idea that culture and experience have a dramatic effect on taste. Just like chitterlings and pigs feet in the South, many of the foods I tried are considered “country foods” in their home country. These dishes may be shunned by some and savored by others, but when removed from the context of their culture we have to take care that novelty doesn’t become an excuse for condescension.  That said, I still don’t think we’re going to see a scorpion on a stick vendor at Fresh on Fridays anytime soon.

Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and eats quite a bit of very strange food. Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.


May 10, 2012

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