Insect cuisine: Ongkrong saek koo (Beef stir fry with red tree ant larvae)

The first time I had this dish was in Kampot, at a small stall by the side of a building away from the busy center of town. I loved it! Then one night I sat underneath a particularly bright light source and saw all the ants in my meal. After my initial shock, I managed to have a civil conversation with my Khmer colleagues about the food they had me eating. These ants lend a tangy taste to dishes, especially when paired with meats in a stir fry. I did end up finishing my meal that night, getting over it very quickly. All manner of insects make it onto the menu in Cambodia, so psychologically-speaking it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, and besides it was rather good.

Stir fried beef with tree ants

There are several names for this ant — Fire ants, Red tree ants, Weaver ants. They’re large, red, have huge pincers and are unbelievably aggressive. They weave their nests into leaves up in the trees which become monstrous in size. If you find a line of them, carry out an experiment. Take a stick and wave it at a part of their regiment. The ones closest to the stick being waved at the group will rear up and attack. Reinforcements will be called via chemical alarm, and soon you’ll have a swarm of angry little buggers trying to get at you.

It and its larvae are a prized culinary ingredient for the delicate sour flavor it lends to the meat, but it isn’t easy to find in Phnom Penh restaurants. So we normally ask Khmer friends to make it for us. Unfortunately, it seems like the ants in Phnom Penh are also quite large. I have no problem eating this dish, but the bigger ants (up to 3cm!) aren’t pleasant visually to someone who hasn’t grown up with these dishes. Here it is stir-fried with ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, cuts of morning glory and thinly sliced beef. As with other stir fried dishes, it isn’t complete without lots of chilies.

Tree ants and larvaStir fried beef with tree antsStir fried beef with tree antsStir fried beef with tree ants

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