In Luang Prabang, Laos, we asked for a different hike than most people take, something off the beaten path, both literally and metaphorically. Our willingness to take on something longer and more challenging afforded us many opportunities, from staying in the smallest village we've ever seen (only seven families) to really getting to know our guides.
I told our Hmong guides, Kaiying and Songpor, that I was a food writer and so I didn't want Western-style food. What they ate, I would eat. Frogs, bugs, whatever. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for me.
Though they were too polite to say it, I get the feeling that they were skeptical and maybe were trying to find something I wouldn't eat. But they were also game and willing to tailor the hike to what I wanted.
Kaiying and Songpor spent a whole morning teaching us how to catch and cook grasshoppers and crickets. Experts as they were, they caught about ten times as many as we did (I only managed about a dozen).
From guns to pots and pans, most items in these villages are made by hand. So to capture the insects, Kaiying and Songpor twisted scrap wire into a hoop, and attached a plastic grocery bag, creating a net. To store them, they wrapped another plastic bag over an old basket.
We used the bag and hoop contraption to crash through the thick brush of the hillside, scooping up large specimens. They told that the bigger, greener bugs were preferable, but I was happy to find any at all. We also used our hands to pluck them out of their camouflaged hiding spots, coming up empty-handed as often as not.
So many times we came "this close" to catching a cricket "this big!" Like the fishermen who lament the one that got away, we were always shouting about the ones that bounced right out of our hands.
Kaiying would listen carefully and start digging with a sharp stick from time to time. He was hunting for a certain beetle-like bug with no English name. These, if bought in the market would have been a delicacy, costing around $1 for 3. Considering what most people in Laos make, that's actually a lot.
In the end, we had at least a gross of bugs. Next stop, the kitchen.
Kaiying heated an ungreased wok over the fire and tossed the grasshoppers and crickets right in. The bugs bounce around the hot pan once or twice, but then settle down, and by settle down, I mean roast and die. Those that managed to hop all the way out of the pan, Kaiying picked back up and tossed in again.
We also roasted the unidentifiable beetle-like bugs as well as a scorpion. These Kaiying held between two sticks tied together and set, still alive, near the coals the wok was placed over. I can see why the beetles were a delicacy. They had a rich nutty flavor. But the scorpion, novel as it was, mostly tasted like burnt exoskeleton.
To eat the crickets and grasshoppers, we pulled off the wings and front and middle legs, leaving the meaty abdomen, head, and back legs. They taste a little bit like popcorn. A tad oily, a tad burnt, with a satisfying crunch. The kind of thing that you can eat handfuls of without much thinking.
This village had no electricity, so there was no chance of sitting around and catching a matinee with our snacks. But that was o.k., because after a lunch of stew with whole, bone-in frogs, we had more hiking to do.
Over the next few days, Kaiying and Songpor found us grubs, other types of beetles, and a giant spider to eat. Of all of the creepy crawlies I ate, I think the grubs were the best tasting. Or maybe the spider. Really, they are all variants of the same thing, an oily richness, a mix between soft and crunchy, and a thrilling wow-factor.