While on a recent visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see friends, I got to know my tuk-tuk (taxi) driver rather well and relied on him to take me places most tourists don’t get to see. As a travel writer, I often do articles about exotic indigenous cuisine, and asked my driver to take me where the local people go for unusual food. It was more than I had hoped for.
We wound through increasingly narrow and dark alleyways before ending up at an open-air street market where I turned all heads – not only as the one non-Asian present, but because I towered over everyone by at least a foot.
My size has often sparked humor in such situations, and this giant occidental turning up at what locals call the “creepy crawly market” was providing all my fellow shoppers with a good laugh. It seems the insect market does not get a lot of tourist trade.
Onlookers crowded around as I made my way from one writhing bin of unidentifiable life forms to the next, each vendor insisting I sample his or her wares.
Most Westerners might be appalled by the thought of eating bugs. But the simple fact is, most of them have little taste, are almost pure protein, and are a staple food source for a good portion of the world. They're especially good when prepared with a little oil and fried or baked.
I began with fried crickets, which I’ve had before – I liken them to cardboard Cheetos. This first munch produced oohs and aahs from the crowd, so I followed up with a mouthful of moth larvae (left, top) fried in peanut oil, and liked it enough to buy a baggy full. They had a nutty, buttery taste and made a loud crunch when you bit into them. A murmur passed through the crowd that told me they were impressed.
Now I was on a roll, and made my way through boiled water bugs (left, bottom), sundried tree snake and oven-baked whole frogs. The snake crumbled like potato chips and gave off a nuanced flavor that reminded me of peanut butter, while the frogs were tough and stringy. The water bugs had hard shells that had to be cracked and were a lot of work for the little meat they yielded. By now the crowd was cheering me on, and I hammed it up for them, smacking my lips and commenting on the various insect flavors I was consuming like a gourmet judge – though I believe not a person understood a word of what I was saying.
At one empty bin I asked what was usually in it and was told tarantulas, but it was too late in the year for them. I used this to make a small scene, saying I had come specifically for the spiders and was terribly disappointed to find none, hoping all along that some enterprising entrepreneur would not suddenly produce one because I was sure I could not bring myself to eat it no matter what. This shocked everyone, and word quickly spread about how this strange foreigner had come to eat spiders but there were none.
Suddenly there was a flurry of phone calls from my public entourage that seemed to be searching for where I could find spiders to eat.
When one man whispered a location to my driver, we thanked him profusely and got into the tuk-tuk, off in what the crowd assumed would be my continued search for spiders to devour.
The whole crowd was buzzing as we drove off, and my driver turned to me and asked, “Do you really want to go eat spiders?”
“Not on your life,” I replied, picking cricket antennae from my teeth. “If you take us for a pizza, I’m buying.”