SKOEUN - "It's not as tasty as cricket, but it could be good if you eat
it with wine," said a traveler, chewing on a spider brochette at a roadside
cafe in this central Cambodian crossroads town.
Chem Phalla, a civil servant in Phnom Penh, agreed with that appraisal of the cricket.
"It's nice, it tastes good. They clean the stomach and they put in some flour
and peanut and fry it."
At a restaurant in the southern provincial capital of Takeo, clientele crunched and
sucked on juicy big ants, fried or marinated for a few days in seasoning and oil
for a sour taste.
Just outside Phnom Penh, patrons have a choice of fruit bat fried Thai or Cambodian
style, or boiled, at the simple wooden restaurant run by proprietor Han Sen on the
main road to southern Vietnam.
"Its blood is good for the eye-sight, it improves the circulation and cools
the chest temperature. The meat helps produce strength because this animal eats fruit
like guava, longan, mangosteen, custard apple," touts Han Sen.
Many affluent Cambodians and city dwellers regard such fare as a delicacy, but surveys
show that most country folk - 80 percent of the Kingdom - forage for field and forest
creatures, including rats, reptiles, bugs and birds to supplement their rice diet.
"Most households (87.5 percent) gathered wild foods... Foraging is a traditional
activity, but such a high percentage of foraging could suggest that the households
do not have access to enough food," said a 1993-1994 United Nations survey of
villages in four provinces.
During the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge rule, when cities and towns were emptied at
gunpoint and the nation turned into a vast agricultural labor camp, people had to
scavenge for such protein simply to stay alive. More than one million died from execution,
starvation, disease and overwork in under four years.
"We ate everything, everything on the earth we ate," recalled Environment
Minister Mok Mareth, who now has the responsibility of protecting the nation's wildlife.
The environment and agriculture ministries last year launched a crackdown on specialty
restaurants selling endangered species, including pangolin (scaly ant-eater), clouded
leopard and rare waterfowl, with the initial aim of educating, rather than punishing
Mok Mareth also warned against the dangers of punters eating common predators such
as snakes, saying: "Snakes are a big problem... Snakes are important to control
But country folk do their bit to control the rat population, said Chem Phalla of
the Agriculture Ministry's food and nutrition office.
"There are many rats in the paddy fields," he said, before explaining different
ways to prepare the rodent, including grilled with salt, simmered in a red soup or
"chopped into small pieces and than put in oil and fried".
Spider is the specialty at Skoeun, a junction of key highways linking Phnom Penh
to the north and east, where girls wait beside the road and at transport cafes bearing
trays piled high with the hairy two-inch arachnids on wooden skewers.
Villagers catch the mildly toxic spiders in nearby forests, said vendor Voeun. Motorists
passing through town were the biggest clients, gulping down a brochette of four plump
spiders at 500 riels (about 20 cents) a stick.
Crickets, on the other hand, are eaten by snack-lovers nationwide and the best time
to eat them is during the May to November rainy season when the insects are rich
with eggs, according to a trader in Phnom Penh's New Market.
"The eggs inside the crickets are more delicious," said Srei Leap, crouching
over a wicker basket seething with the creatures.
The egg-laden insects are also more expensive - 8,000 riels (about $3) for 52 against
3,500 riels in the dry season.
While many locals hunger for the exotic, ethnic Khmers draw the line at dog meat,
which is still eaten by the Vietnamese and Chinese minorities.
"If we eat it we feel ashamed, because people think dog is such a bad animal,"
said Chem Phalla.