Travel Diaries: A trek into Thailand’s northern hills brings some gastronomic surprises.
A taste for dung beetle
Dung beetle is crunchy on the outside and has a slightly creamy texture on the inside. The best way to enjoy this insect snack is to toss it with ginger, chilli, shallots and garlic, and add a few sprigs of lemongrass and a couple of star-anise. Once served, it is chewed with gusto and washed down with an ice-cold beer.
“I tell you!”
Our guide, Sombat, holds a bucket between his legs and scoops out a handful of its contents as he tries to convince us that these dung beetles don’t actually eat dung.
“We farm these beetles here. They eat rice husks and don’t have any poo in their body!”
A family from the village we are staying in laughs as they also dig enthusiastically into this delicacy. We sit around the fire chewing on the beetles while sharing our sightings for the day. Rays of deep yellow light pierce through the branches as the sun sets behind the distant bamboo forest, creating atmospheric dancing shadows of the flickering fire and the swaying leaves. Dinner is being prepared in a nearby hut and the aroma of various herbs and spices in a slow-cooked curry tickles my nostrils.
Experience the rustic life
I sit soaking up the surroundings and listening to the symphony of life. We will be spending the night under roofs made of banana leaves on woven bamboo mats on wooden floorboards that smell of smoke and dust.
The house, like many others in the region, is sturdily built, with shared sleeping quarters that would normally accommodate up to four families. Sharing it between seven of us is considered luxury by many in the village.
A flurry of activity surrounds us.
A hen and her chicks scratch about the courtyard and the household cow tied up behind the fence paces to and fro, agitated by the dog barking at a stray cat from across the road. My stomach grumbles as I sniff air filled with the scent of cooking, and I make do with another handful of beetles.
Visiting the hill tribes of Thailand
A hill-tribe visit was on my to-do list in Chiang Mai, but I passed up a tour through villages that are home to long-necked Karens for a more basic and rustic trek through Thailand’s hill-tribe region. The ‘hill tribes’ refer to the people from the Asian interior who have settled in Thailand for generations.
Their communities are dotted around the northern parts of Thailand in areas that still remain unnamed on maps, and they receive few visitors other than the daily groups of trekkers that come their way.
We are picked up early in the morning from bustling Chiang Mai and shuffle through light forests amid a symphony of cicada calls and birdsong. Not long into the trek we find ourselves surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.
We carefully overtake several wandering chickens and cows, which make rather clichéd props against a picturesque backdrop of overlapping rice fields and hills.
A Surprise Culinary Journey
We have come to Thailand for adventure and rugged country experiences; little do I know I’m also about to have some gastronomic surprises.
During this trip we have seen the most beautiful scenery, ridden elephants through mountain paths and traipsed the river on bamboo rafts, yet it’s the food that has remained a highlight.
Each night Sombat, the consummate multi-tasker, swaps his backpack for an apron, and prepares us a feast out of the most basic ingredients. At the same time he talks a hundred miles an hour, explaining his cooking methods and teaching those who want to help out while skilfully slicing through cabbages without missing a beat.
We all rush over as dinner is called and salivate over the feast before us. Among the selection of stir-fries, curries and spring rolls is a dish with a broth so thick and heavy in colour that it looks lethal. Its scent is unfamiliar yet intriguing.
“That looks interesting,” my husband says, pointing to the concoction. “What is it?”
“I am glad you asked!”
You can see the pride in Sombat’s eyes as he ceremoniously scoops a bit of the curry into everyone’s bowls.
“Eat up – it’s squirrel curry. It is very special. I caught it this morning!”
It didn’t taste like chicken.
Images: Thinkstock, Flickr under CC2.0