I like the idea of things in nature - be they fauna or flora, edible or not - that have short seasons. Like the succulent plant in my little courtyard garden that picks its moment to shoot flowers when Hanoi's murky grey spring is breaking into days when the sun is out for a few hours, when real warmth is returning, before the summer oven goes on for the next five months. An intricate hanging white thing, it is perfect for a few days. Then decay sets in and now it's as if it never existed. All within a week.
That's just one example of this short season phenomena that I have become rather more attuned to observing since lobbing in this part of the world a decade ago. These 'short season seasons' appear to occur at either end of the oppressive summer here, when temperatures are rising through warm or falling through cool.
Mulberries do the rounds on Hanoi's streets for a few weeks. Hibiscus flowers, too. And little balls of fruit called soan dao, which I posted about years ago and still do not have an English translation for. Tonkin jasmine (hoa thiên lý), sometimes known as sky flowers, are about to hit the menus of bia hơi restaurants across Hanoi. Sometimes I stumble upon these little gems on my walks about town. Other times, I spy them rather rudely reading a screen across the shoulder of a colleague.
And I pounce with the questions and a train of thought is put into motion. In this case also, a memory of a book arose, read years ago and mentioned in the pages of this blog. A book about Laos and a quest to find and eat ant egg soup, a successful quest:
"There on the ground, on a shiny heart-shaped leaf the size of a serving plate, lay a creamy mound of fresh ant eggs. To me it was like finding a pile of priceless diamonds"
Natacha Du Pont De Bie, 'Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos'
My mission would be as successful though much less heroic. I had an address and it wasn't the jungle in Laos. I had, too, the name of a dish; xôi trứng kiến (sticky rice with ant eggs). But I did have this 'short season' portent to beat. Apparently ants don't take (nuptial) flight that often. Some weeks in March and April was my vague window of opportunity, I had been told.
Quan Kien is a restaurant that specialises in what you might call 'bush tucker', much of which is derived from ethnic minority groups in remote areas, some even in Laos. They distill their own rice liquor, some varieties flavoured with fruit, others with flowers and herbs, all highly alcoholic. I drank a big bottle of Beer Lao and made sure the ants had been laying.
They had, the eggs appearing as a kind of topping on the sticky rice, mixed with a cooked greasy coagulation of finely chopped shallot, wood ear mushroom and crispy dried shallot. Taken as a mouthful together, the predominant flavour was unpleasant oil. The ant eggs however, picked up precisely and singularly in my chopsticks were rich and delicate, complex and rewarding eating. And small. Protein-y and vegetable-y at the same time, they are reminiscent of both roe and the tiny pea in a snow pea when bitten through.
Crudely, particularly given their short season, I imagined them squashed and spread on toast or mashed into a dip to be eaten with crackers.
143 Nghi Tàm
West Lake, Hanoi