Catherine Price, author of 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, takes us on an adventurous eating experience in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
When my husband Peter ordered the fried tarantulas at Romdeng, a restaurant in Phnom Penh that specializes in traditional Khmer food, he was hoping that he wouldn’t notice he was eating spider.
I know that sounds delusional, but lots of fried foods bear little resemblance to their original ingredients. Think of popcorn shrimp. Or a corn dog. There was a chance that the spiders would arrive so coated in batter that their true arachnid nature would be camouflaged, nothing but a stomach-turning afterthought.
“I bet they’ll be dipped in tempura,” said Peter, as we waited for them to arrive.
“Like a zucchini fritter,” I said supportively.
But neither of us was convinced.
Even without its spiders, Romdeng is not an ordinary restaurant. Opened in 2005, it’s run by Friends-International, a nonprofit organization that works with marginalized youths around the world. At Romdeng, Friends-International trains former street kids as cooks and waitstaff, and gives them a chance to practice their skills with real customers in a dining room set in a beautiful old home. Sebastien Merot, one of Romdeng’s founders, says that he loves the pride his students and staff show as they learn about and serve traditional Cambodian food — a cuisine that he explains was “virtually annihilated” during the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. It’s unclear when exactly fried spiders entered Cambodian cuisine, but they’ve become genuinely popular. According to the restaurant’s cookbook, the aptly titled From Spiders to Water Lilies, “Cambodians eat them like Westerners eat potato chips.”
Shortly after our tempura discussion, our smiling waitress approached our table with a white plate, garnished with carved cucumber and a small dish of dipping sauce. Arranged around the greenery were three tarantulas, each the size of my palm. There was nothing battered about them. The spiders were clearly black; even the hair on their legs was still visible. These were just straight-up tarantulas, dipped in oil and fried. They looked like they could crawl away.
Peter fell silent, exhibiting the most regret that I have ever seen him display over an appetizer. Then he gently picked one up by its leg.
Twirling it slowly in the air, he tried to figure out the best place to begin.
“This is going to be much harder than I thought.”
He’d have been happy to leave the spiders on the plate. But we were in a restaurant staffed by former street children who probably grew up struggling to find food.
Here we were with three giant spiders, artfully presented. What kind of jerk doesn’t finish their tarantulas?
So Peter plowed in. After working his way through a leg, he gamely bit into an abdomen. “That didn’t taste so good,” he said. I pointed out the dipping sauce.
As I watched in horror, he started in on what we later learned was the thorax. According to Wikipedia it has a “delicate meat inside.”
“This part really isn’t so bad,” he said, chomping on another leg and trying to get me to take a bite. “No, seriously,” he said, gesturing toward me with a half-eaten tarantula body.
I looked more closely. I’d never considered that spiders might have meat inside, but it turns out that when they’re big enough, they do– it was white and flaky and looked a bit like fish. Staring at the spider, I knew this was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to try one, and besides, Peter could use some help. I decided to take a tiny bite. By tiny, I mean less than a nibble. A nibblet. Basically as little as I could possibly eat and still claim to have tried it.
I brought the spider up to my face and managed to bite out a small lump of meat. I chewed. I swallowed. Then I looked at Peter and, with amazement in my eyes, said something I still can’t believe came out of my mouth: “It’s not that bad.”
It really wasn’t. The spider tasted meaty and fried, no more offensive than a chicken finger. Emboldened, I broke off a tiny piece of leg and popped it in my mouth as well. It left behind an unchewable crunchy material, sort of like a shrimp shell. I decided not to eat any more tarantula.
Peter kept going. By the time they cleared his plate, only an abdomen and a few legs remained. What’s more, he had begun to insist that they’d been prepared with a special stuffing. “See, they all have splits on their backs,” he said. “It tastes like tamarind.” We later checked the recipe for the tarantulas in the restaurant’s cookbook. The recipe begins: “Step 1 – Kill the spiders by pressing firmly on their backs. Step 2 – remove the fangs.”
And according to another recipe, what Peter mistook for a tamarind filling was really, “a brown paste, consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.” When properly prepared, the spiders are fried “until the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny.”
For what it’s worth, the stiffness of our spiders’ legs indicated that they’d been prepared by a good chef. We also learned — in case any of you local foodies out there are wondering — that these were free-range tarantulas, harvested in a nearby province by villagers who use flashlights to find them in trees or holes. But I think it’s safe to say that, while we’re both happy that we tried them, we’ll leave the next round of tarantulas for Cambodians to enjoy.
is a freelance journalist and author of 101 Places Not To See Before You Die.
Photos by Catherine Price