Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jennifer & Another Thing from Mr. Sing

I opened my email the other day and was thrilled to find a letter from Jennifer Davidson. Ms. Davidson is the daughter of Alan Davidson and the co-editor of “Traditional Recipes of Laos” by Phia Sing the royal chef whose recipes I tried to recreate in my last blog. Getting a letter from Ms. Davidson felt somewhat akin to receiving an answer from a message in a bottle thrown into the Mekong. I had contacted by email the publishers of the cookbook, Prospect Books, and they, very sweetly, gave me her home address in Switzerland. There’s no mail delivery pickup system in Laos, so I wrote a letter and took it to the central post office, bought a stamp and handed it over. You just never know, right? I wanted her to know how much I appreciated her and her father’s work and secretly hoped she would look at my blog and enjoy it. Which given her enthusiastic response I felt she had.

But it seems I had made a terrible mistake. The picture I downloaded from Google Images of Alan Davidson wasn’t Alan Davidson at all. It was another guy, Andrew Graham-Dixon, the TV presenter and art historian who produced a documentary on Davidson. Jennifer very generously took the time to copy and send me three photos of the real Alan Davidson. They’re all great but I like this black and white one the best - it feels as though it comes from another time. Just like Laos.

One of the great benefits of living in another country for a while is getting to appreciate the seasonality of food. Here in Laos we have two seasons, wet & dry. Wet runs more or less from the end of May to the end of September so thus far I’ve really only experienced the dry season. But it’s beginning to rain intermittently and subsequently bamboo shoots of all shapes and sizes are showing up in the market. The Mekong is already full enough that barges can navigate it. Therefore I knew I only had a short time left to sample a great Lao delicacy - mawk khai - ant eggs - only available in the dry season.

Red weaver ants build their nests high up in mango trees. The nest is a complex structure of twigs, bark and leaves and people harvest them in the wild by knocking them down with a long pole into a bucket of water. The eggs sink to the bottom and the ants who, needless to say go crazy, drown in the water. At least that’s the plan. Some usually escape to sting the forager - although it’s not an excruciating pain – but it does go a long way to explain why the price for a handful or so is quite expensive by Lao standards.

I knew mine were fresh because there will still a few struggling ants clinging to life in the batch I bought at the market. My housekeeper, Leh, showed me how to clean them by rinsing and soaking them and getting out the bits and pieces of leaf and twig along with the weaver ant carcasses.

It was then that I started to get cold feet. What, you exclaim, the woman who ate steamed wasp larvae and fried bamboo caterpillars?! But yup this picture was starting to creep me out. First I tried pretending to myself it was picked over blue fin crab meat. But that didn’t work – it really does look like larvae, doesn’t it? Finally I pulled myself together. You eat fish eggs, don’t you? You pay big bucks for caviar and lap it up. Come on, give it a go.

But how to prepare them? I have a recipe for ant egg soup from Natacha Du Pont De Bie’s book “Ant Egg Soup” but it seemed that fish was the primary flavor in that dish and I really wanted to taste the ant eggs. So back to Phia Sing who has a recipe for ant eggs steamed in banana leaves. A mixture of ant eggs, finely pounded pork with shallots, beaten chicken egg and chopped scallion leaves gets wrapped in the ubiquitous banana leaf and steamed. This worked out o.k. but I felt the pork was getting in the way of appreciating the ant egg flavor which seemed slightly sour.

Bruce, my husband, had the brilliant idea to leave out the pork and make a kind of soufflĂ©, separating the chicken eggs, beating the whites to stiff peaks and folding in the yolks mixed with ant eggs, scallion leaves and pounded shallot. Here’s the fluffy pre-steamed mass.
This was the delicious result, and the analogy to caviar is not far off. You know how when you get really fresh caviar the individual eggs seem to pop in your mouth? It’s the same with ant eggs which, by the way, are also very nutritious, containing multiple B vitamins and lots of trace minerals. And they have indeed a slightly sour tang to them which is a feature of Lao food. The Lao have a hankering for sour things which they find refreshing, and bitter things which they believe are good for your health. Sour I can handle but bitter reminds me of my Italian friend’s reply to my query about her three spoons of sugar in one demi-tasse of coffee. “JoJo, life is bitter enough”.