It might not appear on many Thai restaurant menus overseas, but frog is a common ingredient in Thailand's upcountry (ie. outside of big-city Bangkok) cuisine. Whether stirred into a gaeng (curry), tossed into an herby stir-fry, pounded into a fiery nam prik (chili dip), or simply grilled and dipped in garlicky chili sauce, for Thailand's rural population frog is a tasty and cheap (or free, if you catch it yourself) source of protein.
Especially prized in Thailand for their sweet and 'clean' tasting meat are larger frogs that have been pulled from estivation, a state of torpor that reptiles in dry season-prone tropical zones enter to prevent fatal dehydration. During estivation frogs burrow underground and shed layers of skin, creating a nearly watertight wrapper that enables them to retain moisture. Their heartbeat and breathing slow; by using 90-95% less energy than in their non-estivation state, frogs can ride out the dry, hot season without taking in nourishment.
Telltale lumps on the ground and in depleted rice paddies begin to appear with the end of the monsoonal rains, around the beginning of November in Thailand. As the earth dries, hardens, and contracts over the three to four-month approach to naa roon (hot season), 'sleeping' frogs are easier and easier to spot, and frog feasting is undertaken in earnest.
But not by everyone. Frogs taken from estivation are called gop jam siin - 'frogs remembering the moral precepts' - after Buddhist monks engaged in the motionless pursuits of fasting, meditation, and retreat. For some Thais, to indulge in the meat of a creature that brings to mind a monk engaged in the holiest of activities is a sin. These ardent believers shun gop jam siin - their culinary attributes and ease of capture notwithstanding.
The frogs above aren't gop jam siin, just ordinary everyday frogs like the ones sold in most any upcountry Thai market. They're small, just 6 inches or so long, and pack a negligible amount of meat. Skewered on bamboo (five or six to a stick) and flash-grilled, they're not meant to be eaten out of hand, but rather taken home and mortar and pestled into a rustic dip for fresh and blanched vegetables. With no access to a kitchen when we came across these specimens outside Chiang Mai's Warorot Market, we were unable to indulge. But I made note of the friendly frog vendor's recipe.
Key to the success of this dip, or so I was told, is a hearty char - achieved via barbecue, heavy grill-pan, broiler, or open gas flame - on the garlic, shallots, eggplant, and chilies. In Thailand of course, everything can be purchased at the market fully prepped and ready to use.
Nam Prik Gop (Frog and Chili Dip)
2 plump cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 red shallots, unpeeled
10 small green or red chilies (if you like fire, make them prik kii nuu)
1 long, thin Italian or Japanese eggplant
1 thick slice fresh kha (galangal)
1/2 tsp. Thai shrimp paste
about 1 cup cooked, shredded frog meat (boiled, roasted, or - for the best flavor - barbecued)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
assorted vegetables (see below) for dipping
Roast, grill, or hold over an open flame the garlic, shallots, chilies, and eggplant until their skins blacken and they soften. Set aside to cool, then peel and roughly chop. Finely mince the galangal.
In a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, shallots, galangal, and shrimp paste to a rough paste. Add the chilies and pound to blend, and then do the same with the eggplant.
Separately, break up the frog meat by pounding it lightly.
Heat a little oil in a wok or pan over high heat. Add the minced garlic and fry just till golden. Add the vegetable paste and fry, stirring continuously, till fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Stir in the frog meat and remove from heat.
Serve warm or at room temperature with fresh vegetables like watercress and sliced Napa cabbage, cucumber, and zucchini; and blanched and drained vegetables such as whole baby eggplant, carrots, and summer squash and Chinese greens (bok choi, choi sum, gai lan).