Thaifood – Superfood?
A soup to boost your immune system? A curry to lower your blood pressure or a salad to help you lose weight? Thai cuisine has conquered the world with its harmonious, aromatic combination of spicy, salty, sweet and sour flavours without which no meal is complete. In most cases, it is even good for your health. Thai food is not only an art, it is also a science which the super food trend in the west has incorporated quite naturally into its repertoire.
Vitamin-rich vegetables, spices, fresh herbs and healthy preparation methods like steaming or stir-frying, all make Thai traditional food one of the healthiest in the world.
Even the simplest of curry pastes - the basis of many dishes - contains ingredients which have long been renowned for their healthy properties. Turmeric, galangal, ginger, coriander, lemon grass, garlic and chilli are all immune system boosters and Tom Yum soup – widely considered Thailand’s national dish - contains antioxidants which are believed to prevent cancer.
Many herbs have been used for centuries in Asian popular medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and also in Western medicine.
Hildegard von Bingen referred to the galangal root (a relative of ginger) as “the root of life“.
Coriander prevents constipation, chilli has a positive influence on insulin production and curcumin is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and alleviates allergy symptoms. The yellow root also lowers your blood pressure. In the West, it is now often added to smoothies and other drinks in powder form.
Curcumin’s properties are greatly enhanced when used in the preparation of soups or curries because curcumin is fat-soluble, not water-soluble.
The papaya fruit has three health benefits. It can be enjoyed ripe but also in its green form. Green shredded papaya constitutes the main ingredient for the much-loved Som Tam salad. It is, indeed, a super fruit. Amongst the many vitamins and minerals found in papaya, it is the papain enzyme which works wonders. It is attributed to weight loss, aiding the breakdown of fats in the intestines. The seeds of this pear-shaped fruit with its bright orange flesh help alleviate stomach complaints and are an old cure for intestinal parasites.
Som Tam salad is made with a sauce of lime juice and chilli and is a healthy snack. You let the som tam seller know how many chillis you want with a show of fingers. But maybe you should cut back on the sugar: the hidden sugar content in Thai cooking is its only drawback.
Som Tam, with its many varieties, originated in northern Thailand just like another contemporary global food trend:edible insects. Insects offer an interesting alternative to the intensive breeding of pigs and cattle and have long been part of the traditional diet in northern Thailand. Until recently, it was considered a “poor man’s” food. Now the UN praises the merits of crickets, grasshoppers or bamboo caterpillars as a sustainable source of protein. Crickets are much cheaper to breed than classic meat sources like cattle or pigs and they need only a tiny fraction of the space, food and energy. For many poor farmers in Isaan, the cricket farm behind the house guarantees a small degree of financial independence and requires little investment. The eggs are delivered by post or bought at the local market. Care and breeding is simple: they are kept in concrete, netted enclosures. Today, Thailand is the world’s largest producer of edible insects. Fitness bars and ready-made pasta sauces contain high protein cricket flour.
In general, a distinction is made between insects that are bred and those which are caught in the wilds. The latter are considerably more expensive. At local markets in rural areas, you can see huge baskets of rather sinister-looking water bugs, reminiscent of mutated cockroaches. For some tourists, eating giant water bugs, like scorpions, is a kind of six-legged test of courage! Ant eggs, in comparison, look pleasantly neutral. These little white balls have a slightly bitter and nutty taste and pop up out of the salad like caviar pearls. Accompanied by nachos or chips, they taste great in a basil, mint and garlic dip!
Talad Thai is Bangkok’s largest wholesale and retail market for foodstuffs and agricultural produce. In its huge warehouses near Don Muang airport, the cooks and chefs of the metropolis can choose from a huge variety of produce. The six-legged delicacy is normally bought here deep frozen then sold to restaurants. Bamboo caterpillars can cost up to 1500 THB per kilo and crickets as little as 300 THB. The bamboo caterpillar is only available at a certain time of the year and has to be harvested by hand in the rainforest. In the north of Thailand, it is considered to be one of the more elegant insects. Indeed, in its fried state, it looks like a very finely carved vegetable strip.
Although the advantages of low fat, healthy proteins are valued the world over, for Westerners, the eating of insects or entomophagy, still requires a bit of getting used to. This is probably due to the fact that people view insects differently to shrimps, for example. Shrimps, however, also have numerous legs and a hard shell – it is only a question of what you are used to.
But what do insects actually taste like? Their aroma, like that of tofu, is actually quite neutral. That makes them the ideal accompaniment and flavour carrier in aromatic Thai cookery. Crickets are a wonderful low-calorie alternative to chips. It is advisable to remove the wings and legs of large-winged insects such as grasshoppers or cicada before eating them. Otherwise, they tend to get stuck between your teeth. The contents of large shell insects is a bit like guacamole; quite meaty and tasty. The pupae of the silk spider are also a popular ingredient which you can enjoy without the annoying pieces of chitin.
More creative chefs are beginning to see the potential of insects as a gourmet food. According to Thitiwat “Mai” Tantragarn, the secret behind tasty insect dishes is to use the six-legged delicacies as an ingredient and not as a gimmick. In his elegant restaurant “Insects in the Backyard”, in Bangkok’s new creative complex Chang Chui, the guests would never doubt the inclusion of insects in his cooking. They are simply part of the recipe, even if you do not always notice them. The slightly sweet-sour aroma of crispy fried bamboo caterpillars harmonizes perfectly in both consistency and flavour with scallops and artichoke. Even the scary giant water bug appears harmless when puréed as a ravioli filling with saffron and turmeric sauce. It also lends crabmeat a slightly bitter and creamy note, hardly noticeable at first. For sceptics, the six-course insect menu, is a great introduction to entomophagy. If fitness fans are not bothered about eating crickets when they chew an energy bar, then why should it prevent us from enjoying a snack? The taste is quite simply delicious.
By the way: wine goes well with the sophisticated dishes at Insects in the Backyard but with the classic snack insects bought out of town or from street food stalls, a nice cold beer is best!