Dipping sauces are ubiquitous throughout south-east Asia. Thai cuisine is famous for its Nam Jeem sauce, which is made with rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and chili, and in Vietnam a fish-sauce and carrot-based condiment called Nuoc Cham is common on dinner tables.
The sharp, sweet/sour, hot and vibrant ingredients of these cuisines are increasingly popular all over the world, particularly among budding chefs. Detailed recipes for the creation of ‘authentic’ sauces and dishes are popular, made with chilis, garlic and herbs pounded together into a paste.
Water bug paste on display at Expo 2015. Photo: Ben Kempas
Some of the most popular, like nam prik kapi, use shrimp paste, a rust-coloured condiment with a strong smell that strengthens as the paste ferments.
Another animal-based Thai/Laos sauce uses the giant water bug as its main flavouring. Giving a unique taste, the large beetles are pounded in a mortar and mixed with chili, garlic, onion and fish sauce and lime juice to make nam prik maengda, a thick condiment served with hot steamed jasmine rice and fresh vegetables. Imports from Thailand are available, mostly in the US.
Nam phrik maengda. Photo: Xufanc, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
It’s not just scent but sensation that makes this beetle sauce so special - the crushed bug slightly numbs the mouth in the way sichuan pepper does.
Another use of the giant water bug in south-east Asian cuisine is a super-concentrated flavouring, much-prized and very expensive, known as mangdana essence. This is fragrant, even pungent, liquid is actually the pheromone secretion from the male bug’s abdominal glands.
Mangdana essence is often found in asian supermarkets, though sometimes as a synthetic replacement. Either variety though is so concentrated that the bottles come with a dropper, allowing you to flavour the dish with just a tiny splash. The flavour is described as sweet, floral and sharp and goes well with meat and fish.