Nothing whets the appetite quite like the prospect of sitting down to savor a succulent spread, only to in turn be devoured yourself.
I'm not talking about a horrifically failed escabeche made out of piranha or even getting your Anthony Hopkins on with The Other, Other White Meat. I'm talking about a carnivorous plant in the lowlands of Malaysia. It has become a favorite snack food of several local tribes.
How do we know this? A group of researchers from several universities in Norway, Denmark and other Nordic countries, of all places, set out hoping to see just how climate change was affecting the Nepenthes species of plants.
Never heard of Nepethes? Well, it's a family of carnivorous plants native to Asia and Australia, mostly found on the islands Sumatra and Borneo. Yes, carnivorous—as in they eat crawling and winged insects. Not to mention small vertebraes, like lizards. And rats. Let's throw in the occasional small bird for good measure.
The plants are known as tropical pitcher plants, or "monkey cups," because of their cup-like buds, which protrude from the top of the plant. Monkeys find them handy to use as water cups—hence the nickname.
To trap their victims, Nepenthes make a syrupy fluid that they then use to drown their prey. The victims are attracted to the Nepenthes' cups—which are often colorful—but when they approach, the critters slide in the syrupy liquid, down the plants' gullets, and to their certain death. Sounds like a Friday night on David Duchovny's sex submarine.
The researchers were concerned that the Nepenthes species might be in trouble thanks to climate change. So where did they start their in-depth, scientific analysis? On Flickr, Pinterest, and YouTube of course. Scientific journals are so totally passé. Everyone who's anyone in academia knows publishing studies on Tinder is in.
They searched "periuk kera," which is the name the plant goes by in Malaysia, and found that the Nepenthes was not only alive and well, but had a native foodie following among two tribes in the Malaysian region of Borneo: the Bidayuh and Kadazandusun. Indigenous tribes are always so good about checking in on Foursquare.
The researchers knew that the plant had long been used in traditional cultures for medicinal purposes. Other researchers have noted that Nepenthes is thought to relieve everything from stomachache to bedwetting to malaria. But social media—hotbed for scientific innovation that it is—showed that Nepenthes was a pretty raging snack food.
"Nepenthes pitchers were filled with sticky rice and mixed with vegetables and/or meat. They are the perfect size for a light meal, and the packaging makes them handy to transport," the researchers say.
Those Pinterest photos looked so appealing that the researched hightailed it to Borneo, where they conducted enthnobotanical surveys and learned how to cook the rice-filled treats. They consulted with over 300 people about the glutinous rice snacks served in the carnivorous cups, making this "the most extensive ethnobotanical study of pitcher plants conducted so far."
They asked this pressing culinary question: did the acidity of the plant fluid—the killing syrup—contribute to the deliciousness of the treat? Did it make the rice more sticky? Apparently not: "The pH and chemical activity of traps analyzed suggest there is no corresponding effect on rice consistency."
One of the researchers even learned how to prepare the tasty treat. And here—lucky you—is the recipe:
"Rinse, trim and fill the pitchers halfway with soaked Thai white sticky rice. To this, add very well-salted coconut milk until the rice is covered. Place the pitchers into a steam pot to cook for about an hour.
On [sic] the markets, additions of chicken or spiced shrimp are often added to the center of the rice, and they are often beautifully garnished with peanuts or pandan leaf."
The researchers even go so far as to say this: "Nepenthes ampullaria is not too hard to locate in garden stores." Really? Is there just a massive, bottomless pit next to the patio furniture section filled to the brim with carnivores?
What goes around, comes around, Nepenthes. Photosynthesize with one eye open, you smug, bird-swallowing bastard.
The researchers were pleased with their results. They discovered what they believed to be a little-known snack food and they conclude as follows: "Harvest of pitchers does not appear to decrease the number of plants in local populations."
What's more, they encourage other researchers to use social media to discover things they wouldn't have previously found: "We suggest that social media might be used as a promotional weapon for heritage-rich snacks like the Nepenthes glutinous rice dish."
Another public service they have done? They have directed our attention to a Malaysian cartoon, Upin & Ipin, which I now highly recommend. The series is about two Malaysian twins who have lost their parents but live what seems to be a happy life in a Malaysian kampong. In one particularly exciting episode, the twins learn about the delights of Nepenthes-stuffed rice treats. The episode is so compelling, in fact, it has been viewed by more than 7.7 million viewers. Meanwhile, the population of Malaysia is only 29.7 million. Move over, SpongeBob—Upin and Ipin are here to stay.
So, the researchers now know what almost 8 million children in Malaysia already know: carnivorous plants stuffed with rice are delicious.