The year is 2022. A disease has killed millions of pigs across Southeast Asia. Thailand, already battered by toxic air and a relentless virus, can no longer rely on plentiful, inexpensive pork to eat.
Enter the crocodile.
With swine flesh no longer affordable for many, an alternative meat is leaping out of the swamp and onto plates across the capital. And while the delicacy isn’t entirely new, this reporter went to investigate the crocodile craze that suddenly has food fanatics obsessing over plates of scaly reptile meat.
Thus, in a post-Pfizer booster daze, I camouflaged in a bright green dino hat and set out to hunt the beast’s flesh, a drowsy huntsman turning the tables to stalk predator turned prey. I suspected it would taste a lot like chicken.
Croc my world
“The Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) is a medium-sized freshwater crocodile native to Indonesia (Borneo and possibly Java), Brunei, East Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.”
That is copied verbatim from Wikipedia, where I also learned that the little-studied species is one of the world’s most critically endangered crocs – at least in the wild.
However, over a million live on the many farms spread across the kingdom. In other words, there’s a lot of meat out there.
And appetites for it have grown since the collapse in supply drove pork prices upward of 50% in some areas, spiking to as much as THB200 (US$6) per kilogram and prompting the government to suspend exports until at least April.
Crocodile meat is rich in protein and lower in cholesterol than chicken. A handy health department infographic issued last week in response to the sudden demand explained that 100 grams of croco contain only 8 calories to 46 calories – less than beef, pork, or chicken.
My first destination was the now-deserted wasteland of RCA, a concrete expanse once pulsing with young, drunk bodies. What had been a nightlife destination today is a small street food hub, with rows of vendors lining the road in front of shuttered discotheques.
My intel indicated that one small restaurant, Chalawan Station, had a good stock of croc. Since it opened in October, the eatery named for the rapey croc king of legend is devoted to rice- and noodle-based crocodile dishes.
Owner Yui, noticing my makeshift trapper attire, smiled and knew what I’d come for. No time was wasted as she began cooking croco meat in a soup broth.
Health officials have a warning for anyone thinking of gnawing on raw croco:
“Please cook the meat before eating,” their recent infographic read.
I closed my eyes and took the first bite of croc guay tiew (THB80). The meat tasted a wee bit dry. A savory taste similar to, yes, that flavor baseline that is chicken. It makes sense
In 2014, genetic researchers found that crocodiles are the closest living relatives of birds, which would certainly explain the taste.
However, unlike chicken, it took some time to chew, and the texture felt a tad drier, with no hint of the oils usually associated with meats.
Banish any thought of “gamey” flesh assaulting the buds with challenging notes. The taste, in my opinion, was even milder than that of common poultry.
Helped by smooth rice noodles, the meat slid down with ease, despite the lack of grease or fat to lead the way into my gullet.
A friend who accompanied me was indifferent toward the taste. “It’s chewy,” he said, adding that he would steer clear of croc meat “unless we are in an actual apocalyptic situation.”
My mind was more open. I ordered a second plate, this time pairing rice and the fried egg of its ancestral cousin, the chicken (THB100). The meat, covered in barbecue sauce, gave it an extra kick in tangy flavor. Conclusion: Crocodile meat flavor is enhanced when you lather it in additional flavoring.
It was time for the hunter to bid adieu and go further afield, this time for the grilled variety.
I chews you, croco
By the time we hit the highway west toward Nakhon Pathom province, the post-booster exhaustion had kicked in. But I wanted to chase a lead to a BBQ place 5 minutes from Mahidol University that, after three years of grilled pork buffets, had recently switched to croc.
Arriving at 4pm, people were already flocking for a crocking.
From the buffet (THB168), I fetched two plates of fresh croco and placed it on the tabletop grill with my weapon of choice – chopsticks. The raw meat exuded no pungent smell, quashing any initial fear it would be inedibly stinky.
Once cooked, I dipped the meat into Thai chili jaew and seafood sauces and went for it.
The verdict? Croc meat is pretty darn good grilled. Chewy, as expected, but definitely not too dry. Perhaps this is the proper way to croc. The buffet offers a variety of croc-based dishes, from crocodile larb to fried and sprinkled with garlic flakes. Whatever marinating was done here worked wonders on the meat.
“Pork is no longer profitable for my restaurant,” owner Pattanachat “Wa” Ngamsanga said. “I thought about what could be a good substitute for pork, and so I tried crocodile.”
The math is easy to grasp.
“Pork costs 190 baht per kilogram to bring over here. As for croc, it can range anywhere from just 80 [baht] to 100 baht per kilogram,” she added.
Pattanachat herself loves the taste of croco and sources hers through a cousin.
“I find that crocodile feels chewy, unlike pork. And it’s delicious. I believe what sets my crocodile apart from other places is that my cousin works at a farm, and the crocodiles there are quite hygienic. When I cut up the meat, it doesn’t smell.”
There’s no hard data yet on the rise in crocodile meat consumption.
For my part, I found it delectable if prepared right. After trying croco from two establishments, would I eat it again? It depends. I would probably take friends out for those looking for a new flavor frontier.
And for as long as pork prices remain sky-high, this odd substitute is likely here to stay.
Grilled Pork Buffet