Ruili insects banquet
Ruili insects banquet
By Liu Jiatong Photographs by Liu Jiatong
Walking into the large yard of Mengmao Restaurant in Ruili City,Dehong Prefecture, diners are always attracted to a row of bamboo baskets, and then screams, hurrahs and even cries can be heard. Inside these baskets are different types of wriggly insects. Don’t panic. In Yunnan, insects are delicious food at the dining table.
Catching crabs in caves
Summer is the time for insects to revel .
Shortly after daybreak, we started our journey of insect hunting by following Zhang Guorong, owner of Mengmao Restaurant. Our ¡°prey¡± was not sold at the market ¨C it is highly seasonal and rare.
After walking in a forest for about one hour, we arrived at a vallay, where Zhang and the villagers started to look for caves. Suddenly, Zhang squatted and pointed to a small cave, whispering, ¡°Look, this is a crab cave. They are spitting out mud.¡± He felt inside the cave and said, ¡°Mountain crabs live in such caves, and so do snakes.¡± Locals have their own ways to find crab caves. ¡°Snake caves are cold, but crab caves are a little warmer,¡± Zhang said. The villagers observe a cave carefully before reaching for crabs. ¡°The rainy season is the best time to catch mountain crabs,¡± Zhang told us.
For the whole morning, the villagers caught more than 250 grams of crabs. Zhang bought them at 160 yuan/kg. It¡¯s not a good harvest, but we were still very excited.
Digging out ant eggs
During our hunting journey, Zhang kept talking about ant eggs, a locally-featured delicacy in Ruili. Ant eggs are nutritious and delicious, but getting them means a lot of digging and enduring ant bites. At 4:30 pm, we finally found an anthill. According to Zhang, finding anthills is something that takes skill ¨C you need to look for and follow small red ants through the green grass. ¡°Ants will loosen the soil when making nests, which makes grass grow better and greener,¡± said Zhang.
The anthill was filled with eggs. Zhang took out a piece of clay, showing us the red ants crawling everywhere. One of my companions asked curiously, ¡°How can these small things lay eggs bigger than themselves?¡± Zhang explained, ¡°In Ruili, ant eggs actually refer to the pupae of weaver ants. The biggest egg will turn into the queen ant, the only egg-laying ant.¡± ¡°The ant eggs from an anthill are worth around 1,000 yuan,¡± he added. After getting the ant eggs, the villagers put the queen ant back into the nest, and refilled it with soil. They smiled, ¡°Next year, we can have ant eggs here again.¡±
On our way home, a villager was attracted by a dead tree stump at the roadside. He looked excited, and started to cut it. Noticing our curiosity, he explained that his experience told him that there might be edible insects inside such stumps. Local people seldom grow vegetables. They prefer edible wild herbs and insects instead.
Tips: Make sure to apply insect repellent if you want to hunt insects. Don¡¯t miss your belly, for insects may crawl into your clothes. The sun powder used by Ruili girls is a good choice to protect your skin, and it feels cool and refreshing.
Enjoying insect dishes
Common insect dishes include Bamboo Worm Salad, Deep Fried Sandworms, Ant Eggs in Spicy Sauce, Fried Crickets in Soy Sauce and more.
After hunting, the cooking was done by Zhang¡¯s chef, an expert in cooking insects.
Insect dishes are always cooked in simple ways, typically cold-dressed or deep-fried. According to Chef Li Zengliang, cold dressing keeps the original taste of worms such as ant larvae, while deep frying suits insects with shells, such as bee pupae and locusts. Knowing the hardship of hunting, we cherished the insect dishes eventually presented to us. Yet it still took us tremendous courage to really get a bite of them.
My first try was a spoon of wriggly bamboo worms with jam. As my teeth and tongue touched this mixture, I felt something amazingly great. Then, sandworms. It took me a lot of courage to put a scary and fat sandworm into my mouth, but the juicy and crispy taste easily persuaded me that it was really worth the 100 yuan we paid. The ant eggs came with a spicy and sour sauce, creating a kind of taste which was unbelievably stimulating and refreshing. Even the pickiest taste buds would be satisfied.
Locusts are common across Yunnan, but those in Dehong are extremely juicy. The locusts (with wings removed) were deep fried, soaked in sauce made from soy, vinegar, sesame oil, shallots and garlic, and then drained. The dish was crunchy and yummy. One by one, I tried all of the insect dishes, and started to enjoy them.
Zhang always plays the game of ¡°guessing insects¡± with guests at the banquet. Timid guests are blindfolded and must guess what they are fed. The funniest part of the game is seeing the guests¡¯ astonished looks when they find out that ¡°fried pork¡± and ¡°shelled shrimp¡± are actually worms.
Insect dishes around the world
Zhang also encourages diners to look for and choose ingredients with him. In this process, Zhang learned new ways to cook and eat from the locals, revealing a more diverse food culture.
According to Zhang, people in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa also have the custom of eating insects. African people like eating locusts and caterpillars very much, and they use them to treat important guests. Thai and Vietnamese people take deep fried crickets as snacks. Chinese people in some areas eat boiled silkworms with sauce. Mexican people prefer red fire ants. Ant sauce was on the menu at their state banquet in honor of former US president Clinton when he visited Mexico.
At present, around 1,900 types of insects are used for food around the world, and most of them are rich in nutrients. For example, a caterpillar can provide 28.2-g of protein, which means two caterpillars can meet the daily protein intake of a person. A mantis contains 35.2 mg calcium, the amount of calcium in 35cc of milk.
Since the debut of ant eggs in March 2013, the menu at Zhang¡¯s restaurant has included more than 50 different insect dishes. More and more tourists are attracted to the restaurant by its ethnic culture and unique insect dishes.