Harvesting and cooking ants
In the west we love lobster and shrimp, but somehow we are afraid of eating beetles, crickets, wasps, termites and ants. Ants are considered garden pests that may bite you. Even if you do not eat ants like the local Thais who treat them as expensive delicacies, a monsoon gardener of any nationality should be grateful for the weaver ants’ efforts to keep your trees pest free. When the weaver ants start farming aphids, i.e. carry them to different plants to ‘milk’ the aphids of their sugary exudates, well, then I agree ants and man have conflicting interests. Otherwise we have a harmonious relationship to weaver ants here at Dokmai Garden in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand).
This time of the year the arboreal nests of the weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) are full of eggs, larvae and pupae. This is therefore the time for harvesting them. The hot dry season is traditionally a hard time for the Thai farmer, so this extra addition of protein and glucosamine is most welcome. Unlike many other ants, this indigenous species uses acetic acid rather than the nastier formic acid. In fact, Ketsanee said that crushed weaver ants are used to wake up old people who have fainted.
When harvesting weaver ants you simply make a bamboo pole and then attach a bag with strings near the tip (not at the tip). Add some rice flour to the bottom of the bag (powdery ants do not cling to you that easily).
The Thai farmer then pokes a hole in the nest (here in a mango tree) with the tip of the pole, and shakes it so that larvae and pupae fall down into the bag.
Since the ground is swarming with upset ants, the farmer better move away a bit, and then he empties the bag in a broad shallow plate. The bag will also contain adult ants, and they will be very upset!
The farmer shakes the plate to get rid of the biting adults, waits a while, shakes it again. Then he takes the plate and moves to another place where he puts a branch on the plate. The adult ants will climb up on the branch, and the farmer then whips it against a tree to get rid of more adults. The last adults are removed by hand. On this picture you see the large soldier/forager, and many smaller house maids which rarely leave the nest.
Khun Nived Seehamongkol, Dokmai Garden’s grand old lady and Ketsanee’s mother cooked two dishes for me and the Tropical gardening School students:
1. Jam kai mot dhaeng (red ant’s egg salad): Mix washed and still living larvae & pupae, sugar, fish sauce (nam pla, a very common liquid available in any Thai store), shallot, chili, scallion leaves and the powder of fried sticky rice. The shallots and scallions dominate the flavour.
2. Gaeng noh mai sai kai mot dhaeng (bamboo shoot soup with red ant’s egg): Rub 10-15 leaves of Tiliacora triandra in 3 dl of water, remove the leaves, boil the water for five minutes, add pre-boiled bamboo shoots and fresh oyster mushrooms, add salt, fish sauce, manglak basil (Ocimum americanum, Lamiaceae) and larvae and pupae. The ants must not be boiled, just heated, or they will become too mushy. This dish has a strong flavour of ‘green’ due to the Tiliacora leaves. The ants bring no flavour.
This is what you eat: to the left a larva, in the middle a pupa of a worker, to the right a pupa of a queen.