Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Jumping off the Dinner Plate

Last night I wandered down my street in Bangkok’s interminable rain, and into a small evening market which had sprung up out of nowhere from a parking lot. Fruit-sellers called out discount prices, starchy corncobs steamed in aluminium vats, and spicy sausages roasted to perfection over smoky coals. Then I looked into what I thought was a bin of glistening grey noodles. But they were moving.

And I realized they were live shrimp.

They squirmed and they flipped and crawled over one another inside the glass case and on top of the plastic sample plate. A few made suicidal leaps from the table onto the ground.

Scooping out Dancing Shrimp

And I had to try them. Just once.

Why? Because I’m mesmerized by the play of light in translucent dishes like jellyfish and bean noodles, but most of all because these mini Mekong prawns are drenched with intoxicating Northeastern flavors like lime juice, chili and mint. Like Korean Sannakji, most of this squirming seafood’s flavor comes from its sauce.

But eating the freshest of foods – that which is alive, or was until your dinner plate got near it – is a more honest consumption than frozen or factory foods. For omnivores like me, many of our favorite dishes mean death for another living thing. To deny this is easy in the supermarket, but not in the wet market or at the farmer’s table.

The vendor scooped a batch into a plastic bag and tore off a handful of mint leaves, then tossed in a spoonful of sugar, chili, and lime juice, which got the creatures writhing in pain – a technique that once inspired a PETA protest in Sacramento.

Dancing Shrimp on a Plate

At home I slipped the Dancing Shrimp (goong den), chilies and all, onto a plate. Then popped a few into my mouth. The sauce was delicious, but the prawns jumped over my tongue like popcorn in a pan, and I couldn’t stomach more than a dozen.

So I donated them to Smeagol, my friend/editrix Janet‘s cat whom I’ve inherited during my stay here. As you can see, a few excitable shrimp have already made their way onto the tile floor.

What's Not for Dinner

But Smeagol is SO not impressed.

To watch a shrimp backflip or two, just click here for a one-minute video – it’s poorly lit, but showcases the moves of this freshwater delicacy before it became dinner.

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