Holy Shit, I Just Ate A Massive Cockroach

One of the semi-cliche things to do when you visit Southeast Asia is to eat bugs.  In some ways it’s a bit of a coming of age sort of thing. Heading to Florence, Italy? You’ve gotta eat Gelato on the Ponte Vecchio. England? Fish and Chips. Thailand? A portion of creepy-crawlies. But, more than that, it’s also a great opportunity to push our boundaries and try a future-food. What do I mean by future-food? Moving forward bugs will be an increasingly important part of our diets as they’re a valuable, easy, and slightly more ethical alternative to other types of meats. We’ve already started to see bugs pop up in high-end supermarkets such as Denmark’s Irma chain, and dried caterpillars and termites are cornerstones of Sub-Saharan African diets. So, I decided to push my limits and give the bugs a go. Every crunchy, goose-bump inspiring, bite is covered in this video, so…enjoy!

P.S. – I hope you’re hungry!

For this video I found a small food cart at Bangkok’s Sunday Market. The cart was situated in the very back of the market where few tourists go on the other side of the pet/fish section. It was an old woman selling the bugs which I purchased from the vendor immediately after a local woman had picked up a hearty bag of crispy eats. Are bugs a regular part of your average Thai’s diet? Probably not. At least not in Bangkok. But, at least it brought with it some semblance of local flavor.

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of fried food around the world, I suspect the bugs could have actually been quite decent if not cooked in a rather old-tasting shrimp sauce and oil. Either way, some were surprisingly good and believe it or not, the cockroach was one of the best! Next time, I’ll be aiming to get them fresh and to try cooking them my way. After all, there’s nothing a bit of salt, olive oil, butter and garlic can’t fix! Still hungry? Don’t miss these videos about bizarre foods here, here and here.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – An Adventure Begins

I’d spent the previous day exploring San Ignacio and comparing tours, tour companies, and their prices. Everyone I spoke with informed me that the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM tour was an absolute must.  I was still hesitant. I don’t especially like organized tours, didn’t know much about ATM and had trouble swallowing the $100+ tour price.  I’ll be honest, I cracked more than a few quiet jokes about the parallels between the $100 sticker price for the day tour and the tour acronym.  Eventually, I meandered into PACZ Tours and surrendered.  The word on the street was that the tour was intense, exciting, and for reason that would later become clear, wouldn’t be in operation much longer.

The office manager of PACZ tours was the very definition of a character. I assume an English expat he had the football game was playing in the small, sweltering office as he went about his business.  Pausing periodically to mutter a husky curse, chuckle, watch a near goal, or light up a cigarette.  A shorter fellow, with old tattoos on his arms he looked the part of a stereotypical soccer hooligan, and no doubt would have been a shoe in said part in any modern movie.

The early morning tour was already booked, but I was informed, there was room on an 11:00 tour the following day.  After another look at the walls of the office, decorated by signed photographs with some of the travel channel’s most famous names: Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and others I decided to take the plunge.   I booked my spot which bought me lunch, transport and a guide.  Bob handed me a slip of paper that outlined what I absolutely had to have for the trip.  Chief among the items on the list: Water poof shoes, socks and a backpack.

Eager to be prepared, and hoping to avoid getting my Keens wet, I stepped into a few of the local shoe stops that dotted the road. After a bit of haggling, and a series of assurances that the shoe wouldn’t disintegrate as soon as it touched water I ended up purchasing a $10 pair of throw away sneakers. Then returned to my exploration of the city.

Path to the ATM cave

A Rough Start

After an early wake-up, I set off to round-up breakfast, pausing at the local watering hole and tourist nexus, Eva’s. From there it was a matter of time before two white vans pulled up in front of the PacZ office.  I piled into the 2nd of the two, and immediately felt a tingle of concern.  I’d booked what I had thought was a rugged, out of the ordinary, slightly dangerous tour suited to young/adventurous travelers.  The people I found waiting for me on the van were a mixture of all ages, and all builds.  Most, however, can best be described as cruise ship types.   These weren’t the young backpackers I’d expected, these were families with young children mixed with near retirees.  Frustrated, I crawled into the remaining seat, sandwiched into the back of the van and began the hour or so ride out of San Ignacio and into the jungle, down a long winding dirt track, across a small river and through several large citrus orchards.

Wading a River in the Belizean Jungle

Eventually we reached a small dirt parking lot, where we piled out of the vans, received a quick briefing and began changing into our water/walking gear.  I’d started the morning out wearing my new throw away sneakers, but also as a precaution, included my usual Keen Targhee IIs.  Good thing I did.  By the time we reached the parking lot the glue attaching the sole of the shoe had come apart, leaving a poorly stitched, cheaply assembled fabric sock behind. As I tossed the worthless shoes back in the car and donned my trusty Keens it’s safe to say I wasn’t a happy camper.

Fording the Rivers in the Belizean Jungle

Fueling the fires of my frustration, there was only one couple in my age/fitness group in the nearly 20 strong group.  To make matters worse, there’d been some sort of mix up, and despite having been promised a pick-nick lunch the company had only packed 10.   Luckily I’d ended up with one of the meals, and set to sharing it with a few of the others.  Then, after a decent delay – we set off into the jungle.

Jungle Mushrooms

I quickly bonded with the other younger couple who shared my frustrations and set off into the jungle, leading the pack.  I was fairly livid, and had allowed myself to slip into a pessimistic mood.  I expected the 45 minute walk through the jungle to take some 10-15, and the time spent wading in water to be nothing more than the 3 times we had to ford across the gently meandering river, pictured above.

Leaf Cutter Ants in Belize

To my surprise 5 minutes passed…10….15….20…25…30…and we were still winding through the jungle on a rough, uneven, often muddy dirt path.  Things were looking up – and my mood began to improve.  The three of us paused briefly at a small line of leaf cutter ants as they carried their heavy loads in a streaming line across the path.

ATM Base Camp

Eventually, dodging under low hanging vines, carefully scaling muddy river banks and keeping an every vigilant eye out for snakes or other dangers, we arrived at the ATM base camp.   The area consisted of a small group of open air palapas, clustered around a fire pit.  The palapas had hooks to hang backpacks or jackets on, tables to prepare gear and a series of hard hats fitted with head lamps hanging from their rafters.

This is where the trip really began for me.  As we waited 5 or 10 minutes for the rest of the group to catch up and arrive, we settled in, and quickly formed into groups of 8.  Each group of 8 had its own guide, and operated individually. The guides were cave guides, and different from the individuals that had ferried us out to the base camp.

Luckily, our group consisted of the younger couple mentioned previously, two middle-aged French Canadian parents and their teen daughter, a middle-aged American, and one intrepid gal who was probably at least in her late 50s.  It’s also where the tour guides told 5 members of other group that he wasn’t comfortable allowing them in the cave for safety reasons.  With a pained look on his face, the guide explained that they shouldn’t have been allowed to book the tour, due to safety concerns and the dangerous nature of caving portion of the trip.  Apparently the person who booked/researched the trip for the group as a whole, failed to properly listen to the safety warnings.

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

Would you believe me if I told you that this ended up being one of the best tours I took during my trip?  Make sure to read part two as I forge ahead and make my way into the dark, winding maze like cave system of Actun Tunichil Muknal.

Continue the adventure with part two [here].

Strange Food & Odd Ideas

Feeling lazy? Listen to this post instead:

Listen to this post

I like odd food. So long as the smell is good, I can usually master my eyes/mind and down most things. Occasionally I’ll find a texture that’s over the top, but the smell is the real decider for me.  This pension for the bizarre and my love of cooking has gotten me in trouble a few times. The most famous of which involved sliced banana in a conventional roast stew (the meat was still good, but my god the banana tasted like nasty bloody slush).

Last night I got into one of my moods.  I was hankering for something new and odd.  Not just slightly odd, but the type of thing I hadn’t had before.  The type of thing that would expand my horizons. I tried to satiate it by trying a new Indian place but that didn’t even come close.  As the minutes ticked by I found myself browsing the food channel, before eventually giving in. It was 9:35 and I couldn’t resist the urge any longer.  I had to experiment. I tossed my shirt back on, recruited Jenny my roommate and we set off for the local Sprouts super market.

By 9:50 I was prowling the supermarket isles looking for something that might satiate my impulsive quest. Eventually I found two objects that seemed as though they might work.  Giblets and pigs feet. I didn’t have any idea on how to cook the pigs feet and had a hunch they required a lot of time so I decided to go with the Giblets.  For those of you unfamiliar; the Giblets are the heart, liver, gizzard etc. from turkeys & chickens.   While a bit unusual and outside the realm of the average American’s diet, it was still far from odd enough.  So instead of following conventional wisdom I decided I was going to have my own go at it..ala impulse.

Giblets in my cart I wandered through the supermarket pondering what to do.  Before long I had a pineapple, lemon, apple, clove of garlic, and bushel of red radishes in my cart.  By this point Jenny had sighed in disbelief and written it off to another of my usual antics.  After some playful gaffing by the grocery attendant we made our way back to the apartment and I began the adventure.

My ingredients were as follows:

  1. Set of Giblets (Chunked into smaller pieces)
  2. One pineapple
  3. One apple
  4. One clove of garlic
  5. Half of a lemon and lemon peel
  6. Brown sugar
  7. Butter
  8. Shiraz wine

The following is the video record of the process:

I really was shocked that it turned out edible.

All in all it’s not something I’d go out of my way to cook again, but it was decent enough that I saved the remaining half portion for a later snack.   The heart was the best of the batch with a full, more mild flavor.  The liver was strong, but still good so long as you like the taste of liver.  The gizzard’s texture was a bit much, but also tasted decent. The Shiraz added an oak undertone to the whole thing which did not compliment the other tastes very well.

A fun adventure!  On that note, I’d love to hear your suggestions for odd foods and your own personal experiences.  Cooked something equally bizarre?  Have a fun story?  I’d love to hear it in the comments below!

Thanks for reading.