For the last few weeks I've been sparingly dipping into a small tub of nam prik da daeng -- "red eye" chili dip -- that I bought in late August from the vendors who drive every Saturday and Sunday from Hat Yai to sell produce, fresh noodles and other goods near our regular market here in Penang. It's a good nam prik -- thick and pasty, and so spicy that more than half a teaspoon in a bowl of noodles will blow your head off. It also has an intriguingly herbal, almost flowery flavor, that I have been attributing to gatawn (santol fruit), which was in season in Thailand when I bought the nam prik.
Today at lunch I added a dab of the nam prik to a bowl of fresh kanom jeen (fermented rice vermicelli) that Dave purchased from the vendors this morning, along with lime juice and fish sauce. I mixed in cold roast salmon (leftover from dinner earlier this week), shredded, and tore over it all the leaves of two varieties of fresh basil (lemon and purple). Then I tossed the lot together with chopsticks and spoon, breaking up little clumps of nam prik as I went. The heat of the nam prik complemented the basil and its flowery edge worked with the oily salmon. A good lunch.
When I was about halfway through my bowl of kanom jeen our Thai maid Wan walked through the room. I knew that the nam prik's mystery flavor was santol fruit, but I wanted confirmation. "Wan, what's that flavor?" I asked, handing her a chopstick with a bit of nam prik on one the end. She tasted, rolling her tongue around in her mouth and pursing her lips.
"Mengdaa," Wan said, matter-of-factly.
"Mengdaa? Are you sure?" I asked. I've forgotten a lot of Thai in the years since we left Bangkok, but I know mengdaa. I wanted to be sure I'd heard right.
I had. "Mengdaa. You know, like the big bugs that come into the house when it rains." She made a crawling motion with her fingers on the tabletop. She was referring, of course, to cockroaches. Mengdaa are water bugs.
I turned this over in my mind for a few minutes. I'm not squeamish. I eat blood cakes and offal. And I've eaten bugs. I've enjoyed bugs. Ant eggs are light and lemony, and when crisped over a fire sago worms taste like a delicious combination of prawns and pork fat.
Yet all of a sudden I'd lost interest in my kanom jeen. And I felt, if not queasy, then not entirely well either. I made myself finish the noodles -- the basil and salmon were lovely, after all -- and chased the now-not-so-pleasant taste of the nam prik from my mouth with a bowl of fruit. But sitting here at the computer now, occasionally burping up what I now know is the distinctive flavor of waterbugs, I'm not happy.
I know that I'll never dip into that mini tub of water bug nam prik again. I won't be able to bring myself to eat the stuff. This infuriates me. Two hours ago I loved its intriguing floral notes. Now that I know the source of those floral notes I want nothing to do with it. It makes no sense. It's all in my head, and if I know it's all in my head I should be able to use my head to deal with it, logically. Yet somehow this is beyond me.
Is it because cockroaches disgust me? (They really do.) Is it because as soon as Wan uttered the word "mengdaa" I immediately imagined the way a plump, cockroach-like waterbug body would splat and crackle in a mortar as it was pounded with a pestle -- the prelude, certainly, to adding the rest of the nam prik ingredients?
And if I were an "adventure eater" -- that breed of foodist who thrills to the chase of the "weirdest", most "difficult" local foods when they travel -- would knowing that my nam prik da daeng contains waterbug bodies make it more delicious to me now than it was 2 hours earlier?
When I was a child my family vacationed every summer in a beach house on Bermuda. Like our house here on Penang, it was prone to insect invasion, especially in the kitchen. One night for dinner my mom served pasta in a delicious creamy sauce. When I asked what the black dots in the sauce were she replied, brightly, "Pepper. Tonight I added lots of pepper." I finished my serving and had seconds.
Later that night my mom told me that the "pepper" had actually been those weevils that get into flour and pasta and rice. We were 45 minutes from the nearest store, we only had one package of pasta in the house, and she didn't discover the insect invasion until it was time to boil the noodles. "I didn't have any choice," she said. "I figured if you didn't know what it was you'd eat it and be happy." I felt sick right up until bedtime.
I've many times had the opportunity to eat mengdaa, deep-fried, in Thailand. I've never been tempted. But can I tell you with confidence that they are delicious. And that I'll never eat them again. Knowingly.