We often talk about the delicious cultural delicacies that you can try in the Indochina region – but what about the dishes that are a little more alien to Western tastes? It might be hard to imagine savouring a deep-fried tarantula, or chowing down on a nice juicy grub, but try getting adventurous with your taste buds – what else is travelling for?
Over here in Britain, there’s a few things your Indochinese counterparts might feel just as icky about – jellied eels or tinned puddings, to name but a few – so put your cultural biases to one side, and blast your taste buds wide open. You might just find a new favourite snack!
These unusual dishes may not have made it onto the Banana Tree menu – but the more unusual specialities of the Indochina region deserve attention too. They’re fresh (in some cases, perhaps fresher than you might care for), they’re natural (likewise) and some are packed with surprising nutritional benefits.
Where you’ll find it: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia
What it is: A curry stew cooked with vegetables, seasonings, and whole fish heads
Where to eat it: Chye Lye, Singapore
The fish head curry is thought to have Indian and Chinese roots – but the modern version was born in Singapore, and fish head curry is now synonymous with Singaporean hawker centres. Although not considered to be cheap fare, some of the best versions can be found in hawker centres and neighbourhood food stalls across Singapore. Preparations of the dish vary – some are made with coconut milk for a creamy texture, some with sour tamarind, and the dish is often served piping hot in a clay pot. If you can get over the fish-eyes staring at you, they’re said to be the tastiest bit – and this spicy curry is a great introduction to the weird and wonderful world of lesser-known Indochinese cuisine! If you need any more encouragement, it’s even gluten-free – and if you don’t want to take a hit and miss approach by finding a great fish head curry place of your own, head to Chye Lye Restaurant in Sembawang – their fresh fish dish is sure to please.
Where you’ll find it: Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia
What it is: A mixture of ant eggs, partial embryos, baby ants, clear soup and veg.
Where to eat it: The streets of northern Laos
So the idea of eating larvae, bugs and bug eggs in one fell sweep might turn your stomach, but this dish is incredibly popular and worth a little taste, if only because the ants are such a great source of protein! And vegans and vegetarians should take note – if you’ve been following the recent debate about how eating insects may be the best way for ethical veggies to reduce the animal harm caused by widespread agriculture, these nutritious little morsels might be the best place to start testing your dedication to saving our furry friends.
There are two main types of soup: white ant eggs, and red ant eggs – don’t sweat the difference too much though, the difference is regional, and the principle is the same. This dish is most popular in northern Laos, where a typical recipe for Gaeng Khai Moht involves chicken stock, lemon grass, fresh chillies, fish sauce and tamarind – doesn’t sound too bad when you put it like that, does it? The ant eggs have a sour taste, and although the ants themselves aren’t strictly intended to be consumed, the separation process isn’t an exact science – so enjoy the crunch!
Where you’ll find it: Cambodia
What it is: Whole “a-ping” or “Thai Zebra” tarantulas, deep fried
Where to eat it: Romdeng, Cambodia
Honestly, what food isn’t delicious deep fried? This dish is definitely not for the fainthearted, as the tarantulas look very much alive and can provoke an instinctive gut wrench – but if you can get past their appearance (soft-shell crab isn’t exactly attractive either, but it’s still delicious!), you might just like what you taste. The tarantulas are boiled in salt water then deep-fried for a few minutes – the legs, which have been described as similar to chicken, with a burst of sweetness, are eaten first. Then comes the belly, which is most prized by true connoisseurs – although perhaps not by Westerners. TV chef Gordon Ramsey described its flavour as ‘a bitter bile taste’ – this could be due to the presence of organs, eggs and excrement in the spider’s torso. Romdeng in Phnom Penh is famous for its version served with lime and black pepper dip – but if you’re outside a city, pick them up at the roadside for pennies.
Where you’ll find it: Vietnam and Southeast Asia
What it is: A whole snake, infused in alcohol
Where to drink it: Almost anywhere in Vietnam
Ruou Thuoc, as it’s called in Vietnam, literally translates to “medicinal liquor” – and that’s what snake wine is considered to be here. It’s thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac and is associated with a whole host of other health benefits – used to treat everything from back pain to heart disease. A whole snake, often a cobra, is placed in an earthenware jar of alcohol with herbs such as ginseng or jujube, then left long enough to allow the venom to dissolve (the strong alcohol deactivates the poison, making it safe to drink). Since the snakes can contain parasites, they must be gutted and cleaned properly prior to use, so be careful where you buy your wine from – and this drink can also be made with seahorses, scorpions, termites and other creatures. For the vegans and vegetarian food lovers among us, note that the medicinal drink doesn’t always contain living creatures – it can be a simple mixture of herbs and knock-em-dead alcohol, although that doesn’t have quite the same visual wow factor.
So tickle your taste buds, Indochinese style, with these weird and wonderful treats – they’ll definitely get a few likes on Instagram, whether your tummy agrees or not! And if you want to sample the sure-fire hits of Indochina here un the UK (without any creepy crawlies), head to your local Banana Tree. We’ll serve you fresh, authentic food from across Indochina, with no nasty surprises – just great tasting ingredients.