From curried crocodile to ostrich in oyster sauce, Raul Dias’ plate presents unusual suspects at Chiang Rai in Lanna, Thailand’s picturesque northern region
There were two nail biting matches being played out that evening. One, a Muay Thai kickboxing bout on the telly. And the other, a duel between two rambunctious geckos on the ceiling overhead. The latter, fighting over their prized catch—a plump cricket struggling for dear life. A few feet below, I was struggling with a conundrum of my own—to eat or not to eat?
Finding myself at Chiang Rai's venerated gastronomic 'temple' for all things creepy-n-crawly, the LuLum restaurant—perched precariously on the banks of the Mae Kok River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong—I was stumped. Before me, was a modest-sized plate of jorrakae tod katium or curried garlic crocodile for the uninitiated!
Now, while I've always prided myself on my rather outré and experimental palate, the said crocodile dish was proving to be my undoing. Not that it looked or smelled any different from the scores of dishes I had gourmandised over my last few days in Lanna and its sister city, Chiang Mai.
You see, I couldn't quite get the whole gecko-on-the-ceiling, crocodile-on-my-plate irony out of my mind. Eating the big cousin, while its diminutive relatives kept themselves busy above was a tad too much for me to digest (pun intended)! It was only after much 'shooing' by LuLum's affable manager; Direk Yodkamsai did the pesky critters buzz off, leaving me to face my waterloo.
Teaming the curried croc with a pat of fluffy jasmine rice, I took a tentative first bite. Expecting an overtly fishy taste, I was taken aback with the firm, yet juicy chicken-meets-pork subtle flavour of the white crocodile meat. The delicate seasoning of the curry did little to dilute the fresh taste of the reptile that wowed me silent. It truly was an 'it tastes just like chicken' moment for me.
Mustering the courage to take on another one of Mr Yodkamsai's suggestions—the tongue twisting (and pleasing) nok kajokthate prik thaidum or ostrich in an oyster and black pepper sauce—I soldiered on. Reminiscent of the taste of fine tenderloin steak with hints of a metallic, organ-meat flavouring, the flightless bird was outstanding. Though not traditionally Thai—in fact, even the Thai word 'nok' in the dish's name is the generic one for bird and not ostrich in particular—ostrich and other avian oddities like emu are fast finding place on menus across the region, I am told.
"The next time, I make you try hiss-hiss and meow-meow!" was Mr Yodkamsai's parting shot to me, as I paid my bill and skulked away into the darkness, a little disturbed…"