From crickets to tarantulas: sampling Southeast Asia’s culinary oddities

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NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and deliver it to my mouth, my brain, hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself, revolts. But it’s too late. Sensing the cricket’s prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits with my molars. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the bolus of mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.

“You’re right – it’s not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.

My partner, Marina doesn’t seem convinced. With a look of disgust she retorts, “You have a leg stuck in your teeth.”

As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai’s walled city, in northern Thailand.

“You’ve got to try one”, encouraged Tim, a British friend of ours with a peculiar appetite for weird foods. As nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn, he had been happily munching away on barbecued crickets he had purchased from a street vendor.

As we continued down the dimly-lit street flanked by vendors on either side, squeezing past the flow of sweaty, sunburnt tourists, the satisfaction of having overcome such a gross feat began to sink in. Sadly, that first momentary lapse in judgement – the result of which I was picking out of my teeth for some time after – was only the beginning of my reluctant adventures through Asia’s culinary oddities.

I dined on frog which had the consistency of tough lobster, but disappointingly, tasted like chicken.

I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.

I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.

I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.

The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.

As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate.

“They’re just spiders”, Long reassured us, as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.

According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity throughout the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists.

Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas appeared under my nose. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider’s eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.

But this was the easy part.

Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was frankly petrified of biting into the tarantula’s meaty body. I imagined the crisp outer layer cracking, and the tarantula’s inner contents exploding in my mouth like an over-ripened cherry tomato.

Dining on tarantula in Cambodia.

Instead, as I bit into the spider’s body I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG, and salt in which it was cooked.

To be perfectly honest, despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul.

The most violent assault on my gustatory sense was committed by neither insect nor arachnid, but a fruit offered by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Referred to by the locals as the “king of fruit”, durian fruit grows in trees and looks like bowling-ball sized lychee. The most obvious characteristic of durian fruit is its highly pungent odour, which has led to the prohibition of its consumption and possession in numerous public places throughout Southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, you’ll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.

In truth, I’d choose tarantula over durian any day.

Peter

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VIP seating at Muay Thai fights in Thailand and Cambodia

Muai Thai in Cambodia

As we arrive via tuk tuk to what appears to be a huge mall parking lot in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we catch sight of the bright lights illuminating the boxing ring in the distance.

On the suggestion of our Cambodian friend, Long, we’ve come to see Cambodia’s version of Muai Thai boxing, named Pradal Serey. Although the former style is more popular around the world thanks to the UFC, from what I can gather the Khmers’ (people of Cambodia) style of fighting was actually a precursor to Thailand’s Muay Thai.

The crowd surrounding the ring is substantial; on the periphery numerous locals are seated on their mopeds, in the middle layer hundreds of locals stand together, and finally an inner circle of seated spectators encircle the ring.

Muai Thai Fight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The crowd surrounding the ring (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

 

Since we are late, and the fights have already started, I presume we’ll be viewing from a distance.

Instead, we all follow Long as he pushes through the crowd, and points to the only row of empty seats, directly next to the ring.

We all sit, and immediately become transfixed by the swift kicks, punches, knees and elbows of the Cambodians duking it out. The sound of the traditional fighting music played by a band of cross-legged men provides an eerie melody but sets the tempo for the movement of the fighters.

It is almost as they are dancing to the music; as the tempo of the music picks up, so does the intensity of the fighting.

However, this dance is bound to leave a few bruises.

As the first round ends, we notice both of the local cameramen have zeroed in their cameras directly on us.

“Long, why are the cameras on us?” I ask.

“They want to show the people watching at home, as well as the sponsors of the event how popular this is. If there are foreigners here, it must be good!”, Long replies as he bursts into his characteristic high-pitched chuckle.

Now I begin to understand why we were given VIP seating – we’re practically celebrities in Cambodia! Immediately, I feel a hint of guilt at the preferential treatment. Especially since we haven’t paid a penny to be here.

As the fights progress, a similar pattern emerges that Marina and I witnessed at a fight in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Namely, the pattern of “tough” guys with intense stares, big muscles, and excess bravado getting their asses handed to them by their slighter, unassuming, and seemingly weaker opponents.

In many instances, these surprising victories are achieved by severe knockouts and accompanied by plentiful blood. In other words, not only did the more physically intimidating contenders lose the bout, they lost BADLY.

You can almost see a fighter’s ego being deflated as he gets knocked down by a seemingly inferior opponent.

Muay Thai fight, Chiang Mai

Why you should never get into a fight (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

 

While I was already a pacifist, watching these fights certainly reiterated an important life lesson:

No matter how weak your opponent might look, they could kick your ass. Thus, avoid fights at any cost.

So if you’re ever in a confrontation, do your best to talk your way out of it.

Otherwise, if your opponent doesn’t respond to reason, run like hell!

Peter

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