One of the most exciting things about traveling is discovering new flavors- exotic fruits, gnarly veg, savory juices, and fried insects to name a few. In Thailand, though I’ve been there dozens of times, I’m always learning about new ingredients and how they’re used.
Two unique ingredients that might be a bit strange/disconcerting for Westerners are the salted and fermented crabs and the preserved rice roaches.
Of course we eat crabs in the West, but we don’t eat them in the same way as they do in South East Asia. In Thailand, small black crabs are preserved in salt, called boo kem (salted crab). These crabs are freshwater crabs and are found around rice fields or wetlands. They don’t have much meat on their bodies, and unlike in the West, these crabs are not prized for their sweetness. Instead, the purpose of these crabs is to impart a brininess to the dishes they’re added to. Cooks usually add the crab at the end of a salad preparation, removing the gills, and then smashing the body to release the crabby salinity into the dressing. Diners either push the crab pieces to the side, or for those who truly love salt, they chew on the shells and tease out the small bits of crab meat.
A few years ago while I was staging at Nahm (my all time favorite restaurant in the world), I saw a bottle of fish sauce with large things floating in it. I asked one of the cooks what it was and they promptly fished out a large bug, or better known as a rice roach (another ingredient that’s sourced from the rice paddies). They had me smell the fish sauce, which no longer smelled like ordinary fish sauce. Because the roaches had been marinating in the fish sauce, the resulting seasoning had a floral undertone. The cook then proceeded to rotate the head off the cockroach and squeeze a bit of the innards on to my finger. I swear to god it tasted of a salty field of flowers. I immediately felt transported and imagined myself running through a field of daffodils. When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t stop expressing my shock at this flavor. Who would ever have guessed to eat the insides of a rice roach?
Chef David Thompson then came over to me to explain that the rice roaches are used in several dishes but that ingredient is not made known to the diners. Many diners would be too picky and probably not appreciate the knowledge that they’re eating roaches in their nam prik, or veg relish. That information is instead just casually not shared on the menu. But a dish couldn’t have the depth and complexity without this special ingredient. The bug can be used to either infuse fish sauce, which then becomes mangdaa, or the actual bug innards can be used to season dishes. Whole bodies are added to marinades and then removed before preparation. Probably not the most appetizing looking ingredient, but that’s not what’s important. The flavor is unexpected, unusual and delicious. Probably better you didn’t know it was in your food anyway.
These two Thai ingredients, crabs and roaches, may look off-putting to a Westerner, but to Thais these ingredients impart rich notes of umami while using local ingredients. If these ingredients ever catch on in the States, perhaps we call the trend ‘Rice paddy to Table.’ I would support it.