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The Story of Dancing Shrimp

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Also from Dancing Shrimp: A Seafood Culture   | Cooking "to Taste"

As everyone knows, seafood is best when it is very, very fresh.

Judging by the lively activity that takes place in the fresh fish markets found in America's major international districts, Asians can be most particular about this. These markets offer a wide selection of live fish swimming about in large aquarium tanks, next to long counters displaying a profusion of colorful, sparklingly fresh seafood laid out on ice. There is no glass case over the counters to separate you from the fish, allowing you to touch, smell, peek under the gills, and make the best selection for the occasion – just as you would when buying fruits and vegetables. Many cities even boast Asian seafood restaurants with fish tanks from which diners can make their pick and be assured that their choices are truly fresh.

The scene is not much different from the open market stalls in the Orient, a culture shock to the Westerner unaccustomed to crowded shops with wet floors and drippy counters, fishmongers wearing rubber boots with net in hand to scoop up whichever fish, crab, or geoduck you desire. Right before your eyes, your choice is scaled, gutted, and cleaned, and, within a few short minutes, ready to be taken home to cook for dinner. To some of my cooking students, a visit to a live fish market in the local Chinatown is like taking a trip overseas.

ShrimpBut even this level of freshness pales in comparison to the freshest seafood dish I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It was at a food stall along the banks of the infamous Mekong River on the northeastern border of Thailand. The Mekong flows from its headwaters deep inside China through mainland Southeast Asia on its way to the South China Sea, and, for some 450 miles, it is the natural boundary separating Thailand from Laos.

To local people living near the river, the Mekong is famous for its giant catfish, some as large as a great white shark, but the seafood dish I had was made with something very tiny -- a minute freshwater shrimp no larger than a hummingbird feather. This shrimp is transparent and, though hard to see, it thrives in such abundance that running a fine cloth net through the water is sure to yield a handsome catch.

My two traveling companions (a Thai and a visiting American) and I happened upon the rural food stalls on a high bank overlooking the point where the Mekong first meets the Thai border. There is no town there, just a few rudimentary stalls set up on the scenic overlook to serve passing travelers.

We were tired from a full morning of exploration in the mountainous country south of there, and were hungry for some of the good, spicy food for which the mom-and-pop food stalls in the northeast are famous. My Thai friend, Ong, who did the driving, pulled over to the vista point and proclaimed that we must have lunch at one of the stalls there, known for their dancing shrimp (gkoong dten).

Dancing shrimp is the name of a Thai dish in which very fresh raw shrimp is served with a very spicy, garlicky, and limy sauce. Because people in northeastern Thailand and neighboring areas of Laos have a liking for raw foods spicily laced with chillies and seasonings and served with fresh herbs, vegetables, and steamed sticky rice, some food enthusiasts have opined that sushi, so identified with Japanese cuisine, might have originated here. What with the texture of the rice, the ritual of rolling it with the hand and eating it with raw meats, fish, and vegetables and spices, the idea sounds quite plausible to me.

We found ourselves a quiet spot with a good view of the river in the shade of an open-sided bamboo shelter. Sitting on the ground on woven straw mats at a low table, my American friend, Jack, found this experience reminiscent of Japanese restaurants in which he had dined in the past. We placed our order with the smiling host – of course, we must have the barbecued chicken, green papaya salad, and steamed sticky rice, staple foods of the northeastern (Isahn) region. Add to these the specialty of the area: crisp batter-fried shrimp cakes and dancing shrimp.

No sooner had we ordered than our host hurried down a sloping path to the river's edge and pulled out of the water a net that we assumed was filled with shrimp, and brought it to the cooking area under a distant bamboo shelter. Distracted by the beautiful views and conversation about our morning adventures, we lost track until dish after dish of scrumptious food started to show up at our table. The barbecued chicken and green papaya salad were excellent – only Isahn folk can make them taste so good! The shrimp cakes were divine, with a rich taste and delicious crunch, the light batter barely disguising the tiny shrimp. Then, out came our host with a small but deep plate covered with another overturned plate. Incredibly, we could hear a sharp and insistent "ping, ping, ping" coming from inside the two metal plates.

Jack had a look of disbelief on his face. Ong gave instructions: "Get your spoon ready. I will lift the top plate just enough for you to scoop a spoonful. Then don't wait, just stuff whatever you get into your mouth and enjoy!" Sure enough, the shrimp were dancing and jumping like we had never seen before when devouring dancing shrimp. The shrimp danced in our mouths, down our throats, and into our bodies.

Although this may sound barbaric to some, the experience was actually surprisingly enlightening. We felt the shrimp become us – we were the vehicle through which their spirit would carry on in the world. We didn't feel that we were eating them alive, taking away their life. Instead, we felt their life continuing on within us, that they happily became part of us. They danced in us and made us dance with life. I was reminded of the teaching that "energy never dies; it is only transformed," and, because something must die (whether this be animal or vegetable) in order that we may live, may we be worthy to carry on the spirit that has sacrificed its life for our nourishment at every meal.

But please don't think of this book as being about eating live and raw foods, rather, it is a celebration of the life that food gives us. It is about the importance of the freshness of food, the care and respect in handling and preparation, and about adding the living flavors of Southeast Asia to your life. It is about a culture: a way of life in a part of the world where food has meaning far beyond its physical dimensions. May our food dance with the spirit of the life from which it came.

See also: The Thai Fish-Eating Tradition

Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit in Dancing Shrimp. All rights reserved.

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