Please, anything but cheese



Tibor Krausz

The Guardian


"Taste like crispy-fried chicken skin," Peng assures me encouragingly. Not really: after a wary tongue-on-guard bite I find they taste more like potato crisps with a piquant Mexican flavour. But not so bad at all, even with their heady rank smell: like burning hair. I nibble some more – if not with relish, no longer with mounting nausea either.

Fried grasshoppers may not become a regular staple of my diet, but they'll do as a snack. "Look for the ones pregnant with eggs," Peng advises. "They're super-delicious." I'm in Khon Kaen, an up-and-coming prairie town in Isaan, as the country's impoverished rural northeast is known to Thais. Judging by the suspenseful attention Peng, Wat and Geo award to my every bite, my newfound buddies have decided to treat our table to a scrumptious insect feast – by way of desserts – solely to gross out a farang (white foreigner) for a lark.

Fried grasshoppers, invitingly spiced up with chili, are on offer atop a street vendor's pushcart. (photos: Tibor Krausz)

But I'm game. And it's not just to show I'm not a finicky mama's boy; I have my own motives. Although my culinary adventure may not become the stuff of legend, it should do fine as a been-there, done-that anecdote. I may be a little tipsy too. So here we go, ordering 20 baht's (about 60 cents') worth of silk and bamboo worms to go with another round of Singha beers.

Under a dangling overhead lightbulb, a creasy-skinned vendor is standing at attention expectantly. Apparently he figures he can make a killing with his choice fare of side orders. He can indeed. Silkworms, cream-coloured and capsule-size, taste like – well, to be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure. I consume a few together with mouthfuls of fried rice to temper my repulsion. They do leave a briny aftertaste, though.

Bamboo worms, matchstick-long critters these, are remarkably like salted cornflakes. Beetles' sturdy protective shields set your molars grinding in agony, but ah the reward! They have the exquisite flavour of shrimp crust seasoned with Bakelite. I cop out of the chilli ants and termites platter, although, this being Isaan, probably it's so hot it would singe any unwelcome tang out of my taste buds. I also pass up on the giant, alien warship-like waterbugs, fine delicacies though, I'm told, they are.

My buddies' appetite and my curiosity slaked, I observe that all things considered, insects have nothing on beef and chicken. "You foreigners eat horrible things," Wat admonishes me. "Like cheese." Mind you, this from a chap who relishes kai khao, a half-boiled duck egg with a sizeable chick embryo cooked in its own juices inside.

Some yummy fried bamboo worms

Wat has a point, though. What we stomach is a matter of personal taste conditioned as much by customs and habits as flavours and nutritional values. Jews and Muslims flinch at the thought of pork. Everyone except Scots recoils from haggis. Only Japanese gourmets will touch fugu sashi, an ultra-poisonous raw blowfish dish.

Westerners frown on snake, dog and monkey meat as far too "exotic". After years in southeast Asia, I strive to keep an open mind and palate. Still, I have to draw the line at live cockroaches. Some chaps here swear by them as a wonderful dietary supplement. Occasionally they like to grab a plummy fat specimen scurrying underfoot and macerate the hapless creepy-crawly in gulps of Mekong Whisky.

Ostensibly, cockroaches do wonders to your virility. So do scorpions. "Try these," Geo urges me, indicating the large jet-black devils occupying pride of place on the vendor's cart. Even fried, they look plenty menacing. "Eat one, and you'll sting like a scorpion tonight, ha ha!"

Yeah, right. You go ahead, chief. I'll just have to make do without.

"Haarghh!" Geo grimaces. We're rinsing the buggy aftertaste out of our mouths with iced watermelon. Rather than picking out the black seeds and flicking them onto the Formica tabletop as he does, I am swallowing bite-sized pieces, seeds and all. Geo delivers his verdict on my dietary habits: "Now that's disgusting!"





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