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The Dish: Tree Ant Egg Laab Salad
Where to Get It: Thip Khao; 3462 14th St. NW; (202) 387-5426; thipkhao.com
What It Is: “I call it Laos caviar,” says chef Seng Luangrath. The white pill-shaped pods don’t come from the sea though. Known as kai mod daeng in Laotian, they’re actually tree ant eggs. A commonly eaten protein in the Southeast Asian country and neighboring Thailand, the ova are hand-harvested from nests often built on the leaves of mango trees. One method of obtaining them is to shake the nests over a bucket of water. The eggs sink to the bottom, while the insects either drown or crawl out. It’s tough work, because the fierce bugs will bite. Though Luangrath remembers painfully procuring the eggs as a child, she now imports frozen eggs when they’re available from January through March. You may not find them on the menu every day.
What It Tastes Like: The eggs are steamed, then tossed with toasted rice powder, fish sauce, lime juice, chili powder, fresh lemongrass, mint, cilantro, and chopped onions. Rounds of eggplant and cucumber plus plenty of hot-as-hell red chilies complete the salad. Before I took a bite, I asked Luangrath what I should expect when I got to the ant eggs. “I tell people they taste like bubble milk,” she says. “When you bite into them, they pop and then there’s milk that has a little sour taste to it.” Frankly, the overwhelming flavor here is the significant heat of the chilies, though hints of mint and cilantro manage to shine through. Texturally, the eggs are like caviar, but splooshier.
The Story: “In Laos, we eat anything that moves,” jokes Luangrath. This includes grasshoppers, crickets, silkworms, and baby shrimp known as dancing shrimp because they are eaten while they are still alive and moving. So eating tree ant eggs in a number of preparations—salads, soups, and omelets—is no big deal. However, the chef was concerned that it might be too freaky an ingredient for American diners. Her son, who works at Minibar, urged her to put it on the menu, where it has been greeted with equal parts surprise, shock, delight, and disgust—as well as steady sales.
Photo by Nevin Martell