Food File: Bun Thang (AKA Getting It On With Beetle Sperm)
I was a long way down the Google rabbit hole when I first saw it: “essence of giant water beetle”. Mentioned as an ingredient in certain dishes from Vietnam’s north.
Whatever I’d stumbled upon named this essence as a key ingredient in the Hanoi version of bánh cuốn.
As you could imagine, I was intrigued.
That night, after the kids were both asleep, I jumped back down the rabbit hole to find out more.
Things got even more interesting when I discovered a dish called bún thang (g’wan, say it in your best New Yawk accent) also contained essence of giant water beetle, known in Vietnamese as cà cuống.
Bún thang, it turns out, is a chicken and rice-noodle soup usually made on the fourth day of the Tet holidays. It includes many different ingredients, including finely-sliced omlette, and is considered an example of the let’s-give-leftovers-a-fancy-name school of cooking. Despite its origins, I read, it’s quite complicated to cook. It’s supposed to be presented a certain way. And it requires a drop of essence of giant water beetle, which has the scientific name of Lethocerus indicus.
Now I understand why people could look at a beetle and wonder if it was edible, especially in Vietnam where people lived in famine or near-famine conditions for decades. But who on earth looked at a beetle and wondered what its “essence” tasted like?
And what is essence, exactly? It sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for sperm to me.
Even Uncle Wiki makes the essence sound decidedly sperm-like: The insect’s essence (a pheromone produced by the male that attracts females) is harvested by collecting its liquid-producing sacs.
I consulted Google again and found a place in Ho Chi Minh City that does bún thang. When business hours rolled around again, Darling Man called them to ask if they used cà cuống in their version.
Unfortunately they didn’t. This particular beetle sperm is quite expensive, apparently.
About four days before Tet, I was in the city as lunchtime approached. And I realised that I was only a few blocks from the bún thang place.
And so ….
It was, after all that build-up, quite bland.
Possibly because it didn’t contain any beetle sperm.
So I am now on a mission to find some authentic bún thang. And a jar of beetle essence. I think it would be a great conversation starter.
Try sperm-free bun thang at Cat Tuong, 63 Thu Khoa Huan, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
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