Foodie Confidential

Juicy caterpillars in butter

American horticulturalist Chad Davis says the mopane caterpillar in Botswana is crisp yet succulent when cooked in garlic and butter

Who: Mr Chad Davis, 42, deputy director of conservatory operations at Gardens by the Bay. The American horticulturalist is in charge of this year's Poinsettia Wishes Christmas display at the Flower Dome, which runs until Jan 8. Born in Illinois, he moved to Arizona at the age of 21 and worked at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix before coming to Singapore six years ago.

What did you eat when you first came to Singapore?

I came to Singapore in March 2011 for an interview and I remember eating fishball noodles at Geylang Serai hawker centre. My favourite local food is bak kut teh and I go to Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh in Keppel Road. We are so used to Mexican cuisine and since there isn't much of it here, we filled up with Indian food - spices, briyani and roti prata.

When my wife and daughter first came here, I took them to eat Portuguese egg tarts at Madeleine's Original Egg Tart in Tanjong Katong.

Where do you go for your fix of Mexican food?

We used to go to Margarita's in Dempsey. Now, we go to Cafe Iguana at Riverside Point. Whenever we fly through Chicago, we must dine at one of American chef Rick Bayless' restaurants. Since FairPrice Finest supermarkets started selling his sauces, we haven't bought any other. I go for the chipotle one.

What do you eat when you return home?

My parents live in Illinois, so I have my hometown pizza from pizza chain Happy Joe's Pizza & Ice Cream. It does a taco pizza with Doritos, re-fried beans, cheese, tomatoes and lettuce. It sounds horrible, but tastes amazing.

In Arizona, where I grew up, I go for south-western fare such as fish tacos and carne asada (grilled beef). I go to the Rubio's chain for fish tacos. On Taco Tuesdays, it sells fish tacos for US$1 (S$1.35) each and we go there to load up.

What do you cook at home?

We make our own tortillas. When my mother-in-law first visited, she brought us a tortilla press and masa flour. We make fish tacos, tamales and taco salads with leftover chicken.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Fresh fish and seafood at a beach by the Mediterranean Sea. I've had good seafood in Spain and lovely fish bouillabaisse in France - but I've never had them by the beach.

You also make your own pizza every Sunday. Where did you pick up your skills?

At the age of 15, my first job was at the pizzerias in my neighbourhood. I started washing dishes, then I learnt to make pizza dough.

I love to use fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil for the sauce and top the pizza with sundried tomatoes, olives, artichoke, feta cheese and roasted peppers. Sometimes, I just do one with gooey mozzarella, pine nuts, basil and tomatoes - as my wife is vegetarian.

But if we order out, my go-to indulgence is Alt Pizza's Dangerous Diego, which includes chorizo, roasted onion and peppers.

Would you turn vegetarian one day?

Well, I don't need to eat meat every day. It's better for the environment and you always hear of ethical issues with meats. I went five years without eating beef after driving through Texas. There were miles of cows as far as you can see and you can't see the grass in between them. It's scary.

Did you have any kitchen disasters at the pizza parlour?

We had cooked about 45kg of sausages and I put the hot sausages into the grinder without waiting for them to cool. After we ground the meat, I took a scoop of ice to clean out the grinder. The metal was still hot and the ice cracked the metal, sent the blade flying across the room and put a hole in the wall 10m away.

Tell us a fond food memory from your childhood.

Deviled eggs. There was one Christmas party for about 60 people where my cousin and I ate 36 to 48 deviled eggs on our own. We were about 10 years old.

How do you dress up your dining table for Christmas?

My wife and daughter made a Christmas tablecloth after attending a silk screen-printing class at the Goodman Arts Centre. Even putting a cherry or pecan pie on the table makes for lovely decoration.

For floral arrangements, we always do amaryllis for Christmas. You can also consider the Christmas cactus, which flowers this time of the year, but you have to keep it in the dark to get it to flower.

Any guilty pleasures?

Pies - both sweet and savoury - as well as ice cream. If we're out, we go to ice cream parlour Udders. If I'm at home, I'll have Ben & Jerry's chocolate chip cookie dough.

What's your tipple of choice?

I'm a beer guy - porter or stout.

For the festive season, I love eggnog and brandy. Eggnog was an indulgence as a kid. I'd drink the whole jug.

Tell us about your exotic eats.

In Botswana, I ate mopane, a large edible caterpillar used as a source of protein. You shouldn't eat them dried - it's like eating dirt. You have to rehydrate and cook them in garlic and butter. The heads were crispy and felt like popcorn kernels that get stuck in your teeth. The body was succulent and juicy and had soaked up the butter.

I've had chocolate-covered ants from Peru, and what was exotic for me when I came here was pig organ soup.

I'd love to try pufferfish in Japan.

Do you grow your own produce here?

I grow Thai basil and mint. I've tried tomatoes, but they attracted whiteflies. I find sweet basil harder to grow here because of the climate.

If you could pick someone (dead or alive) to have a meal with, who would you pick?

My grandmother, who died in July. I miss her seven bean salad, where the beans are pickled in vinegar and sugar. She would make this during Thanksgiving and Christmas and only the two of us would eat it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Juicy caterpillars in butter'. Print Edition | Subscribe