Who said dinner out had to be boring?
It was a random lunch time wander that sparked my interest in silkworm of the edible kind. Browsing grocery stores can easily provide me with hours of fun, and a tin of silkworm pupae not only caught my eye, but had to be photographed and tweeted.
Although the tin didn't cost that much, I didn't buy it because how does one prepare a tin of silkworm pupae for consumption? Scattered over noodles? Sandwiched between two slices of fluffy white bread? Perhaps presented as Steve from The Sneeze suggests - speared with cellophane-frilled cocktail toothpicks? Or maybe like this guy did - nestled in a bed of cheese on a pizza.
I found my answer at Best Friend, a Korean restaurant on Pitt Street just a few doors down from fried sushi specialists Kana Express Food. Originally named and still registered as Chung Jin Dong, its English titled is presumably aimed at widening its customer base. Would it become my BFF Best Friend Forever? I headed there with Howard, Minh, Richard, Shez and Simon to find out.
Best Friend Korean Restaurant menu
Initially I'm puzzled by the huge posters featuring Korean lads running with joy and giving brooding stares that would rival Derek Zoolander's version of Blue Steel. Finally Richard and Simon point out that these are movie posters from the Korean smash hit movie Chingoo or Friend. The picture of the grimacing kids in the menu come from the same movie. Hence the Best Friend restaurant name.
Movie posters from Chingoo, or Friend
We're shepherded upstairs, a narrow room that is busy with diners and a touch hot and stuffy. One wall is painted bright red and emblazoned with the word Friendship, whilst two hands grasp one another in a handshake on the other. It's a Hallmark moment.
Friendship and cutlery
The tables are a dark brown timber and the cushioned chairs still have their protective plastic on the padding. Each table comes equipped with a canister of spoons and chopsticks, the spoons encased in hygienic protective paper sleeves. A box of tissues is on each table and water arrives quickly in the ever-present Korean water carafes.
Korean metal chopsticks and paper-wrapped spoon
The complimentary panchan side dishes are quick to arrive. These little morsels are always a Korean restaurant highlight, and it's always fun to discover which panchan will be served. We nibble on cubes of tender cooked pumpkin sprinkled with sesame seeds, a tousle of salad leaves drizzled with a tangy dressing, and the requisite peppery hot pickled cabbage kimchee. Apart from the kimchee, my favourite is the slippery and cool rectangular prisms of mung bean jelly, even if they are tricky to pick up with metal chopsticks!
Salad with dressing panchan
Nokdumuk muchim mung bean jelly panchan
Using an egalitarian approach we all agree to nominate a dish each to share. My vote automatically goes for the pupa soup [sic] which I'd spotted on the menu outside. And joy of joys, it's the first to arrive.
Pupa soup Dduk Bae Gi Bun Dae Gi $15.00
Hmmm... I hadn't quite prepared myself for the sight. The use of the word "soup" is definitely misleading. We receive a massive black stoneware bowl that has a carpet of silkworm pupae one-inch deep. The sizzling action from the sauce they're in only adds to the sense they're still alive and moving, a writhing mass of crunchy chrysalis. Mmm... are you feeling hungry too?
Silkworm pupae for one
It's servings of silkworm for everyone! The only abstainer is Simon who flatly refuses to join in the fun. The rest of us look down at our bowls with increasing solemness.
Down the hatch
As I stare at the little brown shells, there's a small sense of disquiet. What. Am. I. Doing. But then I look up and see Shez munching on them like popcorn. "Mmmm... they're really quite good."
I admit I feel a tiny bit squeamish when I put the first one in my mouth. The fact it's wet and not deep-fried is not helping. I've seen the little corrugations alongside its body, and now my tongue can feel them too. There's a small crunching sound as I bite through the body and a slight squelch as its innards squirt their way though. It's not altogether pleasant, but I try another one.
The flavour of them is hard to describe. Words like "dirt", "dust" and "soil" get bandied about the table. Shez thinks they taste a little like the heads of dried baby shrimp used in Chinese cuisinie.
I taste the atmosphere of attic, and I've never even had an attic. The silkworm are a little bit woody and nutty. But there's a musty flavour to them too, and a slight metallic nuance. There's also an odd aftertaste that lingers. I end up eating about 25 of the critters trying to work out what they taste like. The body disintegrates into powdery smithereens that get stuck in your teeth. All I can think of is "cockroach". And I speak from experience. I did eat one once. By accident. A hot chocolate story that still makes me shudders.
Cultural struggles aside, silkworm pupae are a hugely popular snack in Korea. High in protein and low in fat, they're actually an excellent source of energy. They're also very filling. Yes, that's the only reason I stop at twenty. *cough*
Fried chicken with spicy sauce
A dish of fried chicken with spicy sauce could not have arrived any sooner. Did I mention the aftertaste of silkworm? I dig into the fried chicken with enthusiasm. The little parcels of deep-fried batter hold bits of chicken that seem resplendent with fat. Deliciously so. The sauce is also decidedly spicy, a peppery chilli heat that builds on the palate to a warming tingle.
Jab chae $19
Stir fried vegetables with potato noodle
Jab chae or jap chae noodles are a little stickier than usual. The potato starch noodles are almost gelatinous, which I quite enjoy. There's a good mix of wood ear fungus, julienned carrot, and slivers of capsicum and onion. A sprinkling of sesame seeds adds extra crunch.
Hot cheese Bul Dak $27
Marinated chicken with hot chilli and cheese on hot pot plate
Hot cheese Bul Dak is a sight that delights us all. The bubble of cheese spills from the hot plate like molten lava. Despite its appearance, it's not actually as cheesy as you'd expect, the puddle of mild cheese no match for the sweet and spicy marinated chicken.
Deep fried chicken wings with spicy sauce $23
To our disappointment, the restaurant has run out of deep fried chicken legs so we settle for deep fried chicken wings instead. For the $23 price tag, it's quite a modest serve, eight pieces on the plate averaging out at about $3 per piece.
The batter is thick and satisfying chewy, the sauce sticky and sweet.
So would I eat silkworm pupae again? I don't think I'd ever get a craving for it, but I'm glad I tried it. We have a duty to try everything once, is my mantra, and for many people around the world, food is not a right but a luxury.
At least now I can add silkworm pupae to my list of unusual foods eaten, one that includes balut, dog, raw ducks blood, pigeon, snails, buffalo, haggis and goat head burger.
What's the strangest thing you've eaten and have you ever eaten a cockroach by accident - or on purpose?
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Best Friend Chung Jin Dong Korean Restaurant
377 Pitt Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9261 8326
Monday to Sunday 8am - 1am
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8/10/2009 02:59:00 am