Thursday, 4 March 2010

Bugged in Cambodia

What do you do when there are insects on the menu? This week's guest blogger, theatre critic Anne-Marie Peard, screws her courage to the sticking place and orders the bugs...

These days I try not to eat anything with two legs, four legs or fins, but the prospect of a snack with six legs sent my moral compass spinning. And what about eight?

Many adventurous travellers return from South East Asia with photos of insectoid treats from market stalls, but they can’t describe the taste of bug. Having scoffed at those who don’t eat like a local, I was determined to taste a grasshopper if I was offered one.

With traditional dishes like stir-fried ginger on the menu, it’s easy to be vegetarian in Cambodia, and as tourism is still finding its feet, it’s easy to find traditional Khmer food and expat-inspired cocktails at reasonable prices.

Deep fried rice cakes and banana pancakes made with condensed milk are delicious, but we all need some protein. Luckily, crickets, water beetles and silk worms are Cambodian staples that fill that need.

Grasshoppers in frame

My first sight of grasshoppers was on a plate waiting by a wok at Siem Reap’s old market. Having a touch of travel tummy, I was only swallowing diarrhoea tablets and water that day, so I took a photo.

At a bus stop on the way to Phnom Penh, I didn’t spot the pile of bugs atop a seller's head until I was back aboard, and was already chowing down on some deep fried sweet bread, so I took a photo out of the window.

But would the time for photos soon be past?

The capital Phnom Penh isn’t as sure about tourists as Siem Reap, with its ancient Angkor temples. Children call “hello money” at the sight of a foreigner, but stall owners at the city’s markets know that tourists are there to gander and most let them wander without offering too many t-shirts too often.

The food markets offer fresh meat ranging from turtle to beef and there’s always an entomologist’s dream stall. But no one offered me a taste. And after 20-plus years of passionate animal protection (I have been known to release cockroaches), I couldn’t really order and eat a bug just to prove my travel hipness.


Grasshoppers to go

However... a day later, I was slurping fresh sugar cane juice as a vat of grasshoppers was being fried on the side of the road. As scooter drivers were stopping for take away bags and pedestrians were tasting samples before choosing their afternoon snack, this was clearly a popular spot to get one's insect fix.

So it was time.

As the only foreigner around, I was hard to miss, but it took some waving and pointing to my mouth to get the attention of the old seller.

She chose a nice plump cricket and, as I pulled a face like a six-year-old facing brussel sprouts, she rubbed her belly to let me know it was good and delicately pulled its legs off. The legs weren’t the problem, it was the bulgy eyes and huge head of something that we tend to squish, spray and bin if it appears near our food.

She had seen many like me and went to throw the critter away, after I'd taken my close-up photo of it.


Perhaps it was stubbornness or a desire for a story that compelled me to continue. Or perhaps, after walking through the Killing Fields that morning, eating a bug seemed a trivial atrocity.

So I can report that grasshopper tastes a bit like chicken (yes, they all say that), with a texture like fried fish. I imagine that barbecued grasshoppers could replace chicken wings as pub food, and I now understand why my cats are excited when they catch a buggy treat.

Six legs good, eight legs bad

One was enough, though. My next food stop was at Romdeng, a famous restaurant that trains street kids and serves traditional Cambodian food.

A tamarind shake with shiitake mushroom and bean curd rolls in vegetable broth with crispy garlic and rice paddy leaves grabbed my eye. But... ah... could I handle a crispy tarantula with lime and pepper sauce? It was only US$3.50.


Tarantula is a Cambodian delicacy. The legs are crunchy, it’s best to remove the “teeth”, and the best bit is the juicy abdomen.


Or so I’ve been told.

In the end, I couldn’t do it. Such a beastie, large enough to be a pet, was too connected with my childhood fears to be eaten. But if you’re curious, the spiders are usually found in a bag next to the frying crickets, and Romdeng keeps them on the menu all year.

Anne-Marie Peard is a freelance writer who reviews Melbourne theatre at Sometimes Melbourne. She returned to her usual vegetarian intake upon returning to Australia, but sometimes gazes intently into the long grass while walking through city parks.