Sometimes life just jumps up and flaps its wings in your face.
Discovering 'goong ten' was one of those moments.
Many moons ago I was living in Bangkok for several months, looking for a career move that would settle me permanently in Asia.
It wasn't happening in a hurry, and I was waiting for my options to firm up, Bangkok being more central to most places I wanted to work than Australia.
Not to mention less costly.
I ended up living on Soi 22, Sukhumvit and the street became a small, familiar community for me.
I knew the som tam ladies, the food shops, and the movements of my favourite vendors.
I had it all worked out. When to go out, and when to not go out at all and just wait for the food to come to me.
I'd become familiar with the 'usual suspects' of Thai cuisine and was almost getting into a gastronomic rut.
My day had become a series of four decisions.
What would I eat for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. And where I would get it.
I'm into looking around, and traffic was a nightmare, so unlike the Bangkokians, I ended up walking a lot.
I'd walk down Sukhumvit to Nana, down soi 22 to the huge Klong Toey wet market and up Sukhumvit to Thong Lor, so I got to map out my favourite foods and get a rough idea of when they should and shouldn't be there
It had become a ritual, like a scene out of Groundhog Day.
One day I passed this guy (below), and stopped in my tracks.
He had a fairly sizeable basket of live, jumping, flicking things which turned out to be epileptic baby prawns.
When I say baby prawns, I really mean it. They were the smallest I'd ever seen. I had NO idea what they were all about.
I stopped and gawked at him as he scooped the convulsing critters into a shiny steel bowl and deftly seasoned them with a slew of handily placed herbs and condiments.
There wasn't any wok, and I couldn't see any boiling water. This mystery was growing deeper. I had to find out more. And then try some. However they were cooked….or not.
In New Zealand, we have a tiny wee speciality seafood called whitebait that look similar. They are tiny translucent fish with bright little eyes.
Whitebait are incredibly popular and most New Zealanders love them. My grandma (or her Mum) was not too keen on eating them while they retained their beady gaze, so she would undertake the herculean task of beheading each one before making the ubiquitous whitebait fritters.
Even though such craziness had run in my family in the past, even I couldn't imagine anyone peeling these minuscule prawns.
Not even Grandma.
All was explained.
These are freshwater shrimp netted with a fine mesh in the inland ponds and waterways around Thailand.
They're eaten while still alive.
The desired effect is for the seasoned shrimp to be actively flipping around in the mouth as they are consumed, adding to the overall spectacle of the dish. Quite challenging for those who are used to food that sits still as they chew it.
Unlike the live octopus that is eaten still wriggling, that cause 5-6 deaths a year in Japan and Korea, these 'goong ten' don't have a fighting chance. They're too small to stick in your maw and kill you.
These live shrimp are very seasonal.
Sometimes a drag of the lotus ponds brings in a bath-filling bounty of wriggling goodness. A week or two later, several drags results in but a fistful of lonely shrimp. Thailand is famous for it's tropical rains and seasonal flooding which is essential for the rice harvest.
The shrimp grow and move with these waters, and the locals know how and when to catch them.
In season 'goong ten' are regarded as a delicacy, and they're extremely popular.
To make the salad, simply toss them with Knorr seasoning, fish sauce, ground roasted dry chilli, sawtooth coriander (ngo gai leaf) and spring onion.
Get ready to eat, then add the lime juice and top the bowl quickly with a lid. Give it a shake, then leave the lid on 30 seconds more so they don't leap out of the bowl. Because they will.
The shrimp go crazy when the lime juice hits them, and half a minute after THAT is the time to dig in with gusto and shovel them down.
The Thai name literally translates as "dancing shrimp"
How were they?
Pretty good. I've had them 5 times, and like most Thai salads, this dish is tasty, with spicy, sour, salty – but unlike most Thai salads, this one dances in your mouth.
What they don't taste like is shrimp. There is virtually no prawn flavour at all, due to them being so fresh and so immature.
it's more of a texture and a "feeling", and this is a very popular local dish because of the mouth-wriggling.
It's not something I'd choose for flavour, but I'd try them again if I saw them. I came to like them. It was very foreign to my Antipodean tastes, but surprisingly easy to try, and even easier to like.
A decade ago, I probably wouldn't have tried them.
I could imagine discovering these in a village or rural area during my travels- but to see them for the first time in the middle of Sukhumvit Road in the centre of Bangkok City was really a surprise. They must be pretty hardy to make the trip from wherever they were caught, all the way to the mean streets of Thailand's largest metropolis.
Many years later in 2009 I spent 3 months in Chiang Khong province, and we netted these wee beasties ourselves, making this very same salad right beside the lotus pond where we caught them. It wasn't easy, but with a few drags in knee to waist deep water, we'd snared enough for lunch
Mum-in-law quickly assembled the salad and we ate it under the trees where we had caught the cicadas which we'd been eating with sticky rice.
Is it cruel to eat them alive?
They're not only eaten by humans – and their natural predators certainly don't use a stun gun before laying in for a feed.
I've come to appreciate 'goong ten', and my Thai friends just love them.
How about you?
Have you tried them? It's a polarising dish. Regarded as either downright disgusting, or as a delicacy to be sought out and shared.
Which side of the fence do you sit on?
Thanks for stopping by, and please share if you found this interesting.