“Um, so now what do I do?”
I nervously asked another traveler in our group.
In her hand was a small silkworm whose lifeless body was situated at the tip of a toothpick-like stick: waiting to be devoured by a brave contender.
In this moment, I felt like I was on Fear Factor.
It was nighttime and we had just reached the peak of our street food adventure. We were standing next to a cart selling a repertoire of cooked bugs on Pad Thai Road, one of the busiest streets in the underrated town of Chumphon in southern Thailand: a gateway for most backpackers who are headed to popular beaches like Ko Tao and Phuket.
The small- framed lady standing behind the bug cart looked amused as her eyes shifted from me back to the person holding the worm, wondering what our next move would be.
Who was going to ingest this deep-fried, protein packed snack?
Around us the street was buzzing with natives and travelers alike, stopping at various carts to feast their eyes and taste buds on the local fare. Options included Pad Thai and various blends of tender meats and well-seasoned veggies floating in a rainbow sea of fiery, tart, and sweet curries. And for the uber adventurous eaters, larger insects like crickets and grasshoppers were up for grabs.
Eyes shut tight with thoughts of “hakuna matata” floating around in my mind, I gingerly took hold of the stick and popped the silkworm into my mouth. I shrieked as I chewed its crispy body and tossed it around from left to right quickly to avoid it from settling on my tongue: initially afraid of tasting some surprise gooey substance that would ooze out from the center.
But alas, the worm inevitably made its way onto my taste buds. And instead of goo, my senses were met with a nutty, salty flavor.
I imagined the others being pretty amused by my dramatic performance at this point: going from totally freaked out, to being…okay.
And right as I was getting acclimated to the taste of this crunchy snack, it was gone.
I had proudly eaten my first silkworm.
“Not bad!” I exclaimed and shrugged as we continued on to our next food challenge.
In Thailand, mealtime is paramount: not just another grab-n-go rushed activity. It’s a communal experience that brings Thai people together no matter the occasion or group. Dishes are made for sharing and typically consist of a full spectrum of flavors from sweet and sour, to spicy, salty and bitter: something to entice every corner of your palette. But despite the myriad of dishes one will find organized on the table, rice always takes the center stage here. It’s the foundation for layering every spoonful of soup, piece of meat or batch of veggies.
During my nearly two-week adventure through Thailand, I experienced some of the most magical foods bursting with vibrant flavors, textures and colors. Case in point is the Tom Yum Goong (red hot and sour Thai soup) I savored in Bangkok’s Chinatown. With each swirl of my spoon, the scent of chili, lemongrass, and lime juice billowed its way to my nose as I bit into the plump pieces of shrimp that were hiding underneath the broth, tails peeking through to give away their location in the tiny red bowl. Many may prefer this dish with other choices of seafood: perhaps fish or squid. But for me, the prawns and I worked out quite nicely together.
The theme of the dining experience in Samui was Pla Kapong Neung Manao: a beautiful whole steamed sea bass sizzling inside a fish-shaped dish over a rich puddle of lime and chili sauce, topped with an herby blend of cilantro, garlic and green onions. I watched in amazement as our guide filleted pieces of this pristine catch and piled chunks onto our plates one by one: letting the robust flavors marinate together over my taste buds as I focused on picking apart each distinct taste with every chew.
We ate steamed fish three times during our visit in Thailand. Go figure.
My most memorable meal brings me back to the town where I bravely ate the silkworm: Chumphon.
Located in the village of Thong Tom Yai, there’s a cozy homestay by the name of Baan Loong Noi. This institution provides travelers with an authentic cultural experience: an opportunity to understand what it’s like to live in Chumphon by participating in the typical day-to-day activities. With an option to stay for a minimum of two nights or more, guests are able to do things like go fishing with the natives, partake in snorkeling and scuba excursions, and help prepare traditional Thai meals at the homestay.
While visiting, we were lucky enough to enjoy one of those meals with the owner Gai, whose smile I remember quite vividly: a universal language that everyone understands no matter where in the world you travel.
Ah! The most important question asked throughout mealtime.
And I eagerly belted out a “Kob kun kaa” (thank you in Thai) that equally improved with my stomach’s capacity for more grains each time I was asked. So, as we learned more about Chumphon, Gai and Yinne (our guide) alternated piling more mounds of rice onto my miniature plate.
In Thailand, it’s customary to serve others before you indulge yourself. The end goal here is that no person leaves hungry, and all of the food gets eaten.
Together we enjoyed a vibrant spread of delicious dishes like Kai Plamuk Tom Saparot, a sweet, purple stewed octopus soup with juicy pineapple chunks, and Hoy Nam Prik Pao—stir fried clams with a full-bodied blend of basil, chili, garlic, and chili paste. And what would any Thai meal be without a deep-fried three flavored fish infused with tart tamarind juices? Yes, please!
Eating my way through Thailand reminded me of the importance of slowing down and indulging in the sweetness of life just as one would enjoy the sweet flesh of a rambutan (a fruit native to Southeast Asia), or a fresh bowl of mango sticky rice with warm coconut glaze slathered on top.
It means mastering the art of savoring moments: putting down the phone, looking others in the eye when speaking, and taking the time to not just eat, but actually enjoy the taste of my food. Each and every ingredient, spice and texture. Down to the very last bite.
This is the beauty of also learning to savor the seasons that come with life: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and all.
Thank you Amazing Thailand for sponsoring this delicious adventure. All opinions as always are my own.