Eating fried tarantula
As you travel around the world, you end up trying a lot of the local cuisine. Most of it is delicious – like the gozleme in Turkey. Some of it is hard to find – like these mushrooms in Spain. And some it is just downright weird and revolting – like the food at the penis restaurant in Beijing.
But I have never had anything as creepy or crawly as the fried tarantula I ate in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Yep, you read that right, spiders!
The menu looks delicious but, at first glance, rather approachable. There’s no sign of animals with more than four legs. There’s marinated grilled beef salad, char grilled eggplant, steamed Mekong river fish, and so on. All would be very suitable choices. But not for me. I’ve got stomach pangs for fangs.
So I point to the menu item. ‘Crispy tarantulas served with lime and pepper sauce’. I’m a little disappointed the waiter doesn’t seem shocked. I was hoping for a quick inhalation, a dilution of pupils, a nervous glance around the room. But he just takes the menu from me and walks away. “Oh, and another beer”, I shout after him. That seems to get more of a reaction. At least he rolls his eyes.
When the dish arrives, I’m not disappointed. There on the plate are three large tarantulas. Two of them have the legs splayed like they’re waiting for their insect prey. The other looks slightly shrivelled, as though it knew it was being thrown onto a hot pan. Such a twisted web of fries.
As I put my fork into one of the spiders, I hear a cracking like a shell breaking. The shivers up my spine make no noise, though. I lift the arachnid to my mouth and bite first into the legs. They break easily beneath my teeth and taste a lot like a prawn tail. It takes a few chews before I can swallow them down but it’s not nearly as unpleasant on my palette as I expected.
The same cannot be said for the body.
I put the whole abdomen into my mouth in one go. It kind of looks like a caramel lolly and you wouldn’t bite that in half so I apply the same logic. It turns out to not be a logical decision because now I have an entire spider body in my mouth and they are apparently not the easiest things to eat. It takes like digested insects – not like chicken, as the waiter had promised. It’s not disgusting but neither is it a particularly enjoyable sensation. The more I chew it, the more it turns into a hardened little ball. It’s the reverse of that caramel lolly I had imagined.
In the end, I make a brave decision just to swallow. The little masticated lump of abdomen in my mouth is not getting any smaller so I just gulp it down… and reach for that beer I had presciently ordered.
Tarantulas in Cambodia
Later in the evening the waiter returns with another tarantula. This time, it’s alive. He holds it on his hand and it sits relatively still. (Perhaps post traumatic stress disorder from seeing his friends flambéed!) He offers to put it on my hands but I’m a bit wary. I buy some time by starting a conversation.
“Where do you get them from?” I ask.
“We call suppliers from the Kampong Cham Province”, he explains, “but the suppliers find from the land, in the jungle.”
I can feel my distraction is wearing thin. I ask whether he eats them himself.
“Yeah, I like sometimes. It’s very nice taste.”
It’s not too surprising, perhaps. This Phnom Penh restaurant called Romdeng is a training ground for street children who want to learn new skills to get into the workforce and improve their lives. If anyone’s not going to be scared of a little (or not so little) spider, it’s the people working here.
So, because I didn’t want to seem afraid and shrivelled up like a third of my meal, I decide it’s time to face the fear of fangs. I put my hands out and a live tarantula is placed on them. What do you think – do I look bothered?
As it turns out, I’m not bitten and it looks like I’ll survive to fight another day and eat another venomous arthropod. My biggest concern, though? I was always taught that it’s rude to play with your food.
* You can find out more about Romdeng restaurant and the work they do here.
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