- Mike Sula
- Klin maeng da
I never pass up a chance to make insect sauce, so I was thrilled when Friend of the Food Chain Leela Punyaratabandhu offered to send me some water-bug essence she brought back from Thailand. Maeng da na essence, or cà cuống essence as it’s known in Vietnam, is a pheromone collected from the male Lethocerus indicus, a fearsome-looking denizen of rice paddies that makes our common cockroach look positively Lilliputian. The critters are not uncommonly eaten as a street snack, but the essence is prized as an additive to sauces and soups. Sadly the bottle Leela had for me didn’t survive the trip to the post office, but she sent along some artificial bug juice that she says compares to the real stuff the way artificial vanilla does to real vanilla. Comprised of propylene glycol, trans hexyl acetate (a component in bee pheromones), trans ethyl acetate (used to decaffeinate coffee beans), and dimethyl sulfide, it smells strongly of overripe bananas, and little bit goes a long way.
- Mike Sula
- Pineapple fish sauce
I whipped up a batch of Leela’s jaew, a dried-chile dipping sauce with toasted rice powder, and used that to dress her recipe for laab. The sauce was strongly perfumed, but once it got into the chicken it hovered in the background sweetly without causing too much trouble.
Cà cuống essence in Vietnam is commonly used to spice up a classic Hanoi dish called cha ca la vong, chunks of turmeric-marinated freshwater fish cooked with dill and green onions, and served with a variety of accompaniments like rice vermicelli, peanuts, a superstinky fermented shrimp paste, and nuoc cham, the ever-present sweet, sour, salty, and spicy dipping sauce. At many restaurants that serve the dish, drops of cà cuống essence are offered to season the nuoc cham at a significant up charge.
In Andy Ricker’s newish Pok Pok cookbook, he offers an elaborate recipe for cha ca la vong, in which he calls for a dipping sauce made from pineapple and fermented fish sauce or nam pla raa. That seemed the ideal vehicle for a little bug juice. Two drops this time and you could almost hear the amorous buzzing of female water bugs half a world away.
Artificial klin maeng da appears from time to time at our finer southeast Asian markets. Currently they have it in stock for a little over a buck a bottle at Thailand Food Corporation (4821 N. Broadway). Why not add a little arthropod aphrodisiac to your food today?
And by the way, have you not preordered Leela’s forthcoming book, Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes From the Thai Home Kitchen, yet? What’s the matter with you? It’s due out in early May. And in celebration she’s giving away cool stuff.