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Bugtastic dining in the Penh

Bugtastic dining in the Penh

If it wriggles or it crawls, it can be spiced up and fried in oil - be it a black tarantula or a fried frog, an adventurous epicurean spirit can always find something to tickle her taste buds.

We've all seen them. I'm guilty of screaming at them, running from them, and even stomping on them. The bugs and spiders that scamper about Cambodia are part of the city's fabric.

But they are also part of the city's edible delights.

The riverside is a burrow of ex-pat and backpacker restaurants and bars - however, it's also home to the vendors of Cambodia's crittery bites. The Central Market is also a great spot for sourcing Khmer snacks.

Pulling up to the riverside in the early evening I am overwhelmed by choice: grilled snake, deep-fried spiders and salty frogs. Women crouch beside their baskets of flavours, while more established sellers have moto-stalls with up to 15 choices of snacks. For 2000 riel I opt for a creepy-crawly pick-and-mix.

I begin with the black beetles, about the size of a fingernail. They are seasoned with spices such as sugar, salt, garlic and cow's bone, before being barbecued for the ultimate summer snack.

You should first remove the wings of this tiny delicatessen. Biting in, they have a slight crunch with a distinctively soy-sauce taste. Chewing through, you're left with a nice surprise in your teeth. Legs. Mmm, nothing like a chewy treat to start me off.

Next on the list: thumb-sized cricket. I'm told the larger crickets are stuffed with peanuts, but mine are simply seasoned and salted. They remind me of crisps - just a tad more crunch to the bite.

Initially quite gritty and crunchy, it becomes salty and softer halfway through its abdomen.

It's time to switch to what I gather is beetle larvae. It's like fruit - soft, juicy, with a similar texture and size of a sultana.

Clenching it between my teeth, the larvae "pops" in my mouth. It's almost refreshing. Almost.

I'm just finishing off my third larvae when the vendors fling their food baskets on their heads and begin running. Have I just been poisoned? Ripped off?

But no, it's not all about me. The police are doing their regular swoop of the area, temporarily dislodging the tuk-tuks and mobile vendors from the road. A few minutes later everybody returns to set up shop. It is an exhausting job, requiring great vigilance.

I'm very dubious about the hairy, black tarantulas. If they were alive, I would scream like a lunatic and leap into the nearest person's arms. Dead,
they're slightly easier to stomach. About the size of a human palm, they are put in a bucket and mixed with spices, then deep fried.

Its hairy legs tickle as my lips meet the black monstrosity. I'm not feeling good about this. Crunch. Chew.

Not bad, but not good. Initially quite gritty and crunchy, it becomes salty and softer halfway through its abdomen. I munch through half the body and legs before discarding the rest.

Tarantulas and crickets became part of the national cuisine during Khmer Rouge rule. As other food sources depleted, people had little choice but sample the less attractive of food sources. But it turned out crickets and spiders aren't that bad-tasting after all.

The spiders also make good wine, which is a good source of protein. The live spiders are placed in a potent wine, where, after a few minutes they become totally inebriated and die. The wine can then be drunk anywhere between a few days and a few months later.

I feel ready to take the next step: reptiles.

Snake on a stick looks appetising. It reminds me a bit of a chicken kebab. To prepare, the skin is removed and the naked snake is splashed with sauce before being barbecued or grilled.

I feel let down by the snake. I fail to bite through its leathery skin and it tastes nothing like a kebab. I take another angle and am again met with tough resistance. Eventually, I crack some off the end. It tastes a little like jerky.

I'm grateful the frog's slime has been grilled away. Roughly the size of your palm, you can easily bite apart the amphibian in one go. It's a cliche, but it really did taste like fried chicken.

Every food critic has her limits, and mine were tightly drawn across the scalded baby chickens. The tiny chicks looked as if they'd been caught mid-scream in a lava flow - scorched to the bone. Chick eggs was another I just couldn't crack. The irrational side of me imagines these poor mother hens having their half-cooked babes cut from their hutch.

Post-meal and I'm waiting for the vomiting and diarrhoea to begin. But it's not to be. I'm actually full for hours and feel energised. Frogs and black beetles were definitely my favourite due to their salty taste, whereas I found the spiders and snake most difficult to swallow, because of their tough exteriors.

For any critter-sampling bring a toothpick. Bug legs are notoriously bad for wedging in your teeth. And remember water. It alleviates the salty seasoning and washes down those dislodged legs, antennae and hairs.


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