This is Wan. She's our maid. There, I've said it.
Such a revelation wouldn't elicit a blink of the eye in Asia, where it's not uncommon for middle- and upper-class households to have someone (or several someones) in to clean, cook, and tend to the the kids. But we Americans are notoriously squeamish about domestic help. We'll happily take our shirts to the laundry to be washed and pressed, eat in restaurants where underpaid servers depend on our good graces to make up the difference in tips, and pay others to massage our feet, trim our cuticles and paint our toenails, and wax our bikini lines. Yet we're uncomfortable with the idea of hiring someone to work in our homes, scouring our sinks, hoovering our dust bunnies, and mopping our floors. In the US, mention that you've hired a maid, and eyebrows are raised. Add that he or she lives in, and thoughts - many of them not at all flattering - are thunk.
Which is probably why I've only rarely referred to Wan in this blog. Culture is an inescapable influence. Wan joined our household nearly five years ago, when we moved to Bangkok, but I'm still American enough to be a little embarassed by the fact that we have a maid (which is how Wan refers to herself, eschewing the politically correct term 'domestic helper').
Yet over the years, in addition to cleaning our house and providing love and care to our menagerie when we travel, Wan has been a fount of rural Thai kitchen wisdom. I write about food. This is a food blog. And it's time I shared her knowledge with EatingAsia readers.
Like most maids and taxi drivers in Bangkok, Wan is from Isaan, Thailand's poor northeast region. She grew up with a brother and two sisters in a small village an hour from the nearest provincial town and headed to Bangkok to look for work when she was in her early twenties. She was 41 when she took her first plane trip (when we left Bangkok for Saigon) but now, an experienced traveler and overseas resident, she's a celebrity in her home village. Despite only 4 years of formal education (average, for Thai rural dwellers) she speaks good English, the product of classes in Saigon and careful attention to the Discovery Channel, HBO, and food magazines.
Wan is friendly and good-natured. She loves to joke, and easily parries Dave's sarcasm with her own witicisms. She's curious about everything, especially food - she'll try anything, from osso bucco to ma la dofu, that I whip up in the kitchen. And though she'll vehemently deny it, she's a gifted, instinctual cook, of the sort of simple, earthy dishes that don't often appear on Thai restaurant menus. Dishes like kai mot phat, stir-fried ant eggs.
I've little interest in the 'weirdnesses', the oddities, of Asian cuisines. We're sport eaters, not adventure eaters, and don't seek out balut, dog, or waterbugs so that we can say, 'I've eaten it.' Dave and I sampled ant eggs at a Laotian restaurant in Bangkok years ago. They were served in a greasy omelette and did not impress. They weren't disgusting, just ... nothing, not worth the calories. We didn't seek them out again.
But when Wan ventured out a couple of weeks ago with a bucket and returned home an hour later with a few handfuls of ant eggs and a big grin on her face, I reconsidered. Wan's like us - she lives for deliciousness. In Bangkok she introduced us to gaeng ki lek, bplaa raa, khae flowers in sour curry and spicy salads, and wild Isaan mushrooms. I trust her palate. We asked to observe the next harvest and taste the results.
The eggs eaten in Thailand (and here in Kuala Lumpur, at least in our house) come from an ant that nests in trees, rather than in the ground. Weaver ants (kerengga in bahasa Malaysia) are medium-sized red ants that deliver a formidable bite laden with stinging formic acid. They're so named for their nests, among the most complex in the ant world, which hide in leaves folded and stuck together with sticky 'silk' squeezed out of larvae by worker ants. When Wan takes a walk in the neighborhood she scans the roadside foliage for plump leafy 'tubes' swarming with red ants (two photos up), and then confirms the presence of eggs by 'cracking' the nest (above).
Harvesting is accomplished with a few simple tools: scissors, a stick, and a bucket filled to less than an eighth with water. Moving quickly - disturbed ants are angry ants, and angry ants are biting ants - Wan cuts the nest from its branch and drops it into the bucket.
Then she reaches into the bucket and, after pulling out and discarding loose leaves, shakes the nest at its base to release the eggs.
Beating the bucket with a stick saves her hands from bites and plunges ants swarming the inside of the bucket into the water, where they'll die.
After it's all over Wan's left with some angry welts and about a handful of eggs from a nest approximately a foot long. Worth the effort, she says: 'In my village someone will sell these eggs for 20 baht (50 US cents)!'
Back home, Wan picks through the eggs, discarding some - but not all - of the ants. Fastidious cooks won't include any ants in their ant egg dishes, but Wan likes the crunch and flavor the insects add. She leaves ants and eggs to float in water until an hour or two before she intends to cook them, when she drains them in a colander.
Later that day Wan stir-fries heaps of chopped garlic, fresh red chilies, and lemongrass over high heat for a minute or two, then tosses in sliced scallions, along with the eggs and ants. After four or five minutes over the fire they're ready to eat, but not before receiving a splash of fish sauce and a shower of slivered makrut (lime leaves).
The aromas released from the wok during the cooking process have set my stomach rumbling, and I gladly accept a small bowl. As I bring a spoonful to my mouth, however, I find the sight of the dark ant corpses off-putting, and I have to look up or close my eyes to complete delivery of the food to my mouth. However unsettling the dish looks, it's absolutely wonderful to taste. The eggs (and, I guess, the ants) are almost mouth-puckeringly tart and stand up well to the fragrant, lightly browned garlic and the fierce heat of the chilies. Each spoonful is an amplified example of the classic Thai flavor profile: sour, sweet, hot, salty.
There's just one problem - my American-bred mind can't quite wrap itself around the fact that I'm eating insects, which is driven home everytime an ant leg gets caught on the corner of my mouth or on the roughness of my tongue. The eggs I can deal with. The bugs I can't. In the end culture wins out over appetite, and I put my bowl down half-finished. If I'm ever to eat ant eggs again, they'll have to be pristine, free of dead bodies.
Kai Mot Phat (Stir-fried Ant Eggs)
Wan says the ingredients of this dish should be entirely liao de rot khon - according to one's taste. An Isaan girl through and through, she likes her food hotter than hell; adjust the amount of chiles accordingly. Ant eggs are available, canned, at some Thai grocery stores in the United States. If you live in southeast Asia you can harvest your own.
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
15 small (fiery) Thai red chilies and 3 large mild red chilies, roughly chopped
3 plump green onions (scallions), white and green parts roughly chopped
2 handfuls of ant eggs
about 1 tsp fish sauce
1 lime leaf, rolled and sliced thinly into slivers
1. Heat a wok or frying pan over high heat, add the oil, and swirl it over the surface of the pan. Add garlic, chilies, and lemongrass, and stir-fry for a minute or two, just until the garlic starts to brown.
2. Add ant eggs and green onions and stir-fry 4 or 5 minutes. Add the fish sauce and the lime leaf slivers, give the dish a final stir over high heat, and scoop the lot into a bowl. Serve immediately, with rice.