The bizarre foods of Thailand is a series that looks into the unusual cuisine that most of us would not even attempt trying but are considered delicacies and a savoury snack to the locals in Thailand. While it may be unacceptable to some of us, it has to be admitted that though some of these cuisine may seem rather unpalatable or simply too revolting, we have to bear in mind that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” does apply in Amazing Thailand!
What would you think about eating live hopping baby shrimps? A slight variation to the Japanese prawn sashimi, these little crustaceans are very much alive and literally hopping on your plate. Locally known as “Kung Ten” กุ้งเต้น or in English –Dancing Shrimps is a dish commonly found in North Eastern (Isaan) Thailand in provinces along the Mekong River. You can also find this dish in Bangkok mostly at the wet market stalls or certain street market stalls where the vendors are from this part of the province of North Eastern Thailand.
“Kung” means prawn in Thai and these little crustaceans are the fresh water variety mostly found in the Mekong River and are caught with a fine cloth mesh. They are only about an inch in size and translucent in colour. If you travel to cities and towns along the Mekong, you will probably find this dish served along with other appetizers on the menu. The Northerners of Laotian heritage have a fancy for raw foods that are heavily spiced but must be absolutely fresh and nothing gets any fresher than live jumping prawns. The origins of eating this dish stemmed from the abundance of aquatic livestock found in the rich waters of the Mekong which was a source of protein aside from red meats such as cattle, pigs and chickens or ducks. The river also yields an abundance of fish namely the Mekong catfish which has found its way into many Thai dishes and traditional cuisines from the North.
The average price for a serving of Dancing Prawns would beTHB30 for a handful of the little critters. The preparation of the condiments that comes along with these live shrimps requires tedious cutting and chopping. The shrimps are served with a mix of finely shredded lemongrass, shallots, ginger, garlic, birds eye chilli, mint leaves, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli powder. Once the condiments are prepared, the shrimp is tossed into the mix before the lime juice along with the fish sauce is poured in. For western cooking we learn that acidic juices can actually cook raw meats such as sea foods turning them white in the process. The lime does the same thing to the shrimps which is why they recommend that you eat this dish as soon as it is served while the shrimps are still jumping around in the bowl.
This particular dish is served to you in a deep bowl with a cover and you can hear the shrimps jumping on the inside of the bowl. The trick is to open the top slightly while you take a quick scoop inside and pop the spoonful into your mouth. The spices and herbs actually brings out the freshness of the shrimps and given an acquired taste, this dish of Kung Ten is actually very flavourful. The foods and cuisine of Thailand are varied in choices, varieties, taste and functionality. Some foods were developed from available resources, while others were out of necessity and eventually became a part of the staple diet. The one thing in common with all Thai food is the use of herbs and spices which are in abundance and the variety of freshly available herbs is astounding.
So the next time you visit North Eastern Thailand in the Isaan provinces, do give “Kung Ten” a try, it is one of the traditional Isaan dishes for the Mekong River folk. The best way to know a country and its people is to savour the local food for behind each dish, there is a story to tell.