by Rick Green
Browsing the booths at the San Francisco Book Fair in 2000, a large paperback caught my eye on the Ten Speed Press table. On the cover, a Khmer girl wearing a red and white-checked krama on her head was biting into one of two spiders on a bamboo skewer. Her left hand, grasping the top of the skewer, was partially splayed out in what looked like the "okay" gesture while she held the spider's head between her pearly teeth. She appeared naturally content.
Cambodia was just one of 13 countries that Man Eating Bugs surveyed where people eat insects. Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio had documented in full colour eating the likes of flying ants in Thailand, Japanese caddis fly larvae, and scorpions in China. Needless to say, I bought it.
Although I love food, I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a culinary adventurer with respect to my day-to-day eating habits. I don't actually relish the thought of popping sheep's eyeballs or tucking into pig's intestines. While I have ventured considerably beyond my North American meat and potatoes upbringing, the meat and seafood I cook at home is still supermarket conventional. That changes, however, when I travel. I attempt to transform my mind into a tabula rasa to let go of my inhibitions and prejudices. That way, I can better absorb and understand the culture of my new surroundings.
When in Rome
If you are truly interested in getting to know a people, experiencing local food is an inseparable part of it. Not only does it give you a direct connection to the land and waters of the place you are visiting, the manner of eating is an expression of the culture that evolved from that region’s food sources. Easier said than done, I know.
When trying something new, I find it helps to take a child-like approach to the culinary equivalent of making a Hansel and Gretel foray into the woods. Whatever it may look like, you really don’t know if you will like a dish unless you sample it. In North America, we've been lucky in that our abundance has meant we mostly eat only the choicest parts of an animal. In much of the rest of the world, they've had to survive on much less, so make full use of what is available. The cook's art is in making the nasty bits taste delicious.
Eleven years after the book fair, I finally arrived in Cambodia for the first time. Brian Smith and I were on an Adventurocity familiarization tour of the Mekong which took us through the delta by bicycle to Chau Doc, then by speedboat to Phnom Penh. From the capital, we were to go by car to Siem Reap and Angkor. Dara, our guide, asked us if we wanted to stop at a market on the way to see fried spiders. Remembering the girl on the cover of Man Eating Bugs, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only would we see if it was something to include in our tour, but this would be my first time to try eating insects.
Skuon looks like an unremarkable Cambodian market town that logically grew up around the intersection of National highways 6 and 7 in Kampong Cham Province. But during the disastrous period of agricultural reform under the Khmer Rouge, hunger drove its residents to desperation. They turned to eating bugs for survival. When the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and food production rose again, Cambodians returned to their normal diets. In Skuon, however, the people had developed a taste for insects, like the Thai zebra tarantula (Haplopelma albostriatum), that thrive in the area's humid climate. Their reputation for entomophagy gradually spread. Now the town is known as "Spiderville" and has become a regular stop for those travelling between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
When you arrive at Skuon’s market, there’s no need to hunt for the fried insects. The vendors know tourists are there to indulge in a yin and yang of revulsion and fascination. You'll either be cornered by competing mobile hawkers proffering platters heaped with limp, hairy carcasses or steered in the appropriate direction by helpful locals. Take your pick of crunchy cricket, crispy grasshopper, or sizzled spider, if you dare. Live tarantulas are also sold to make a tonic believed to enhance male virility. They are drowned in rice liquor, then steeped for a couple of weeks until the invigorating essence of the spider turns the transparent liquid to colour. I didn’t feel a need to test this out, but it's popular with Asian men. I saw one fellow making his way back to a tour bus with some freshly-dunked spiders in a plastic jug. If it doesn't work, he can at least down a Viagra with his spider hooch for a good time.
From Desperation to Delicacy
Dara bought us a half dozen of the toasty tarantulas for sampling. Compared to the live one crawling on Brian, these looked scrawny. Perhaps that’s why I found they tasted like bland roasted nuts. With a larger abdomen, there would have been extra soft flesh to better find out how close to chicken it tasted. Instead, their crunchy texture was more memorable. Salted, they would have made good beer snacks, like the crispy fish filets we had at our homestay in Cai Be, Vietnam.
Demand for cooked bugs has since grown in Phnom Penh too. This has spurred the growth of a harvesting industry in the countryside. You can see cricket traps from the highways. Front yards and fields sprout plastic sheets held taut by wooden frames emerging from makeshift water receptacles. A black light tube is suspended in front of the plastic so that when turned on at night, attracts the crickets who collide with the plastic sheet, then slide to a watery death below. The critters are fried in the morning and delivered fresh to the market for sale. So what started out as an act of desperation, has resulted in a new economic opportunity that is helping relieve some of the widespread poverty in a country slowly recovering from decades of conflict.
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When people think of Cambodia, the two top things that come to mind are Angkor and the Killing Fields. However, the country is developing rapidly with more areas opening up for tourism, such as its beaches and offshore islands. To learn more about Cambodia, read our articles and see our photos. Have any questions or comments? Become an Adventurocity community member and share them on our spam-free message boards.