Bored of pad thai and tom yum? Ditch the usual dishes for red ant eggs, fried insects, raw prawns and more that require lots of daring to eat. Think you have what it takes?
If sushi was your limit when it came to raw foods, expand your boundaries with goong chae nam pla. The Thai dish is a (very) fresh raw prawn salad doused liberally in fish sauce and spicy garlic dressing, with fiery chilli, lime juice and mint. Whiteleg shrimp is the more commonly used crustacean, although other prawns can also be prepared. Served on a bed of crunchy sliced cabbage and cucumbers, you’ll forget that the soft, almost buttery shrimp you’re eating is extremely raw!
Flavours in goong chae nam pla are intense, but it’s worth having as an appetiser to kickstart your many delicious meals while in Thailand. Here’s a fun fact to tell your dining partner while chewing through raw shrimp: this dish has been around since the early Rattanakosin era in Thailand from 1782 to 1851.
If you can’t stomach the thought of eating fried insects, think of the crunchy crickets, bamboo worms and grasshoppers as a great source of protein, iron and calcium. Their crispy peppery flavour, enhanced with soy or fish sauce, will have you forgetting that you’re eating fried insects. Beginner-friendly bugs such as bamboo worms (known as rod duan) are surprisingly soft and nutty instead of crunchy. A bite into a grasshopper yields sweet, salty and nutty flavours, with a satisfying crunch to boot.
Have it here: Skip the buzzing tourist hub at Khao San Road; the fried insects at the famous street market are fine, but the bugs at Talad Rod Fai are where the locals get their fill. The train market (Bangkok’s first!) sells the bugs in small containers for easy consumption when snacked on at home—more practical and less kitschy than that one insect meant for photos. Be warned, the carts might be out of fried insects if you get there too late.
Here’s a tamer dish if you’re squeamish but still eager to explore Thailand’s more exotic food: khao kan chin is steamed rice mixed with minced pork and pork blood. The Northern Thailand dish is sometimes called khao ngiao, an archaic term with unfortunate racist origins, so remember to ask for khao kan chin instead of khao ngiao to be safe.
To quell the smell of blood, lemongrass leaves are squeezed in before being added to the rice. A combination of salt, sugar, garlic, shallots and vegetable oil are then mixed together with the rice mix and steamed inside a tightly folded banana leaf. After sitting pretty for 30 minutes, the khao kan chin is then served with fried chopped garlic, fried shallots, fried dried bird’s eye chillies, onions and cucumber. Taste-wise, it doesn’t reek of “exotic” despite the pork blood element, but you’ve still earned your badge of daring with this dish.
Nam prik is essentially a fermented shrimp paste with roasted chillies and garlic, and you’ll find it on Thai dining tables as a dipping sauce for fried fish and boiled vegetables like cabbage or eggplant. What makes nam prik mang da distinctive is the additional insect ingredient: pounded giant water beetles, known as mang da in Thai.
Having the bug in your chilli and garlic paste may sound like a turn off (and something that requires lots of daring to eat!), but after a spoonful of the spicy condiment, you’ll be won over. Why? Its powerful but deceptively delicious bug musk is pretty intoxicating and strangely good; the raisiny, almost liquorice taste has a metallic whiff. Bug or no bug, you’ll be dipping your veggies in nam prik mang da repeatedly.
Like fish roe sushi? Dare yourself to eat its insect cousin, Thailand’s larb mote daeng, a spicy-sour refreshing salad made with red ant eggs. The eggs look a lot like tiny white capsules; biting into them feels akin to eating mini jelly beans. Unlike the sweet treats, the red ant eggs burst with a sour flavour similar to lime juice (thanks to the ants’ diet of mango leaves), so when chased with the dish’s toasted rice powder and mint, it makes for a dish you won’t forget in a hurry.
More fun facts: larb mote daeng was created in Northern Thailand due to the region’s less fertile grounds and even less favourable weather. A protein-rich diet was required fast, and as Thais considered red ant eggs a clean protein, it promptly became a bit of a delicacy, thanks also to its seasonal nature (red ants peak in activity from March to June).