Eating Tarantulas in Cambodia: The Good, The Bad & The Eight-Legged
Once in a while we have a concerned guest that asks us, “Am I going to have to eat ‘weird’ things?” To that, I say two things: (1) Weird is relative. I think egg whites are the weirdest thing on earth. (2) Of course not! You have to get pretty far off the beaten path (or even the slightly trodden path) to find menus where noodles, fried rice, French fries, and even pizza aren’t an option. While we encourage our guests to branch out and try new things, we completely understand wanting some familiar comfort food once in a while.
That said, we are sometimes presented with funky culinary opportunities that we can’t pass up, like fried tarantulas in Cambodia. Far from being an ancient practice, the consumption of tarantulas most likely started out of desperation during the Khmer Rouge years (1975-1979), when almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed due to regime violence and subsequent famine.
More common in the city of Skuon, you can often find trays of fried tarantulas at bus stops and street carts. In the bigger cities, though, it tends to be geared more to tourists for shock value. We saw them on a street cart in Siem Reap (where the temples of Angkor Wat reside), in addition to edible snakes and beetles; however, they looked a bit old and cold and were more of a shtick (charging tourists 50 cents to take a photo of the cooked critters) than a true arachnid snack.
In the capital Phnom Penh, though, there’s a delightful restaurant called Romdeng that not only serves tarantulas, but serves its community in a wonderful way. Romdeng employs former street children and marginalized young people in Phnom Penh and boasts a lovely store upstairs that benefits its parent charity. We decided to try the tarantulas at Romdeng not only because the restaurant supports the community but because they were sure to be fresh, prepared hygienically, and the dipping sauce (fresh lime & black pepper) sounded too good to pass up!
We headed there one afternoon only to find that they were fresh out of tarantulas; well, all except for one tiny guy who lived to see another weekend. Our waiter brought out a live tarantula and set him on BJ’s arm—and then promptly walked away! I told BJ that if the spider got rowdy, he’d have to jump in the nearby pool to get it off because there is no way I’d be helping!
Luckily the spider stayed cool and just hung out; when the waiter came back and took the spider off of BJ and put it on the table, it kept making a beeline for me. Was he looking for rescue or preemptive revenge for eating his kin? We’ll never know.
We did sample the Beef & Red Ants in lieu of the tarantulas that day; as someone that doesn’t eat pork or poultry and only the rare bit of beef, I have to say that the ants were the most delicious thing on that plate! It was still a bit unnerving having a few of them stare me down postmortem, though.
We returned to Phnom Penh and Romdeng after traveling around the gorgeous islands of Cambodia, and we hit the tarantula jackpot when we got back. We made an afternoon snack out of them on Valentine’s Day—how romantic! In anticipation of the dish coming out (and luckily no live precursors visited us this time), we order a big Cambodia beer and a wine I thought might go well with spider meat. In reality, I just needed a cold glass of something that might make the idea of eating a spider go down more smoothly, and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc did the trick.
The spiders finally arrived, all 4 of them, carefully presented on a white plate with stylish garnishes. BJ made the first move, tearing a few legs off and giving them a go. What I didn’t expect was his completely nonchalant reaction: “They’re pretty good!” BJ continued to plow through them, even popping a whole one in his mouth (well—minus the guts-and-possibly-egg-filled abdomen). Meanwhile, I was dissecting my one spider.
I cracked the leg like a little crab’s and slid the exoskeleton off in one piece (that was to be the last time it was that easy). And sure enough, it looked like a miniature crab, although it was almost too small to detect any taste. I tried braving the hairy exterior like BJ was doing (I thought frying was supposed to remove the hair?) but after a minute or two of chewing I gave up and made an offering to my napkin. (I won’t go into the details about how many times I tried to use that napkin, forgetting that there was a chewed up, hairy spider leg in it).
I scraped the tarantula leg hair off my tongue and off my fingers and decided on a new tack. I would open up a thorax and some more legs (and even a fang or two) and collect the meat. In short, I just started making a mess. But I did it, I collected a tiny but respectable clump of meat that I added one drop of lime pepper sauce to…and I still can’t say I noticed a discernable taste. Describing the taste is where I defer to the foodie experts like Andrew Zimmern (click here to watch this 5 minute clip from Bizarre Foods wherein he details the whole process of tarantula cuisine, from capture to consumption).
Tourist-friendly (and otherwise delectable menu-ed) Romdeng caters more to the curious and marginally grossed out; when we arrived, there was a group of young people filming their exploits as they popped whole ones into their mouths and tried not to spit them out. However, as a cheap source of protein, you could do worse than tarantulas, particularly if they’re seasoned well. What started as a necessity in a time of desperation has endured into a truly Cambodian dining experience.
*Shout out to my main man Victor for coming through with some arachnid puns in my time of need!