en·to·moph·a·gy noun \-ˈmä-fə-jē\ : the practice of eating insects
I knew I was in trouble from the glint in Sophoes' eye. "I got us some snacks for the van!'' His boyish enthusiasm left me worried. I had seen the ''snacks'' for sale when I had gotten off the van at the rest stop—mountains of deep-fried crickets, spiders, and other bugs. There were even buckets of live bugs next to where the woman was cooking them! For a second, I foolishly hoped that he had gotten fruit for us. On our van ride down to Phnom Penh he had gotten us bamboo sticks filled with sweet rice that were absolutely delicious. I thought that there was as small chance he'd surprised me with another tasty treat that didn't come with legs.
He handed me a plastic bag and I looked inside—4 deep fried spiders. Wow. He held up another bulging bag and said, ''I got crickets, too!'' ''Spiders?'' I ask. ''No, they aren't spiders. They're a-ping.''
Now, I'm an adventurous eater. From caribou steak in Colorado and pigeon heart in Italy, to kangaroo and emu in Australia and pig intestines in Korea…I'll try it all. I reach in the bag and pick up one of the spiders. The batter is sticky and brownish-red in color. I look at it for a second. It seems gigantic, and I'm not sure what to eat first considering the legs are all over the place. I get a wave of nausea. I imagine that the spider just moved and I squeal, much to the amusement of the rest of the people in the van. "Um, I'm sorry, but I don't think I can eat it.'' His face falls. "I want you to try traditional Cambodian food.'' I put the spider back in the bag and hand it to him. "Let me think about it a while.'' I look out the window, a little surprised at myself for my hesitation. I hear Sophoes crunching his way through a spider. ''It's really smack good smack,'' he says while licking the remaining goo off his fingers.
"Okay, okay, okay.'' I reach back into the bag and pull out the spider again. I take a tentative nibble on one leg. It tastes sweet, like teriyaki or honey BBQ sauce. This isn't so bad, I think to myself. I make quick work of all the legs and I'm left with the body and the head. I start to wonder what would happen if I find out that I'm allergic to eating spiders while in a van full of people who don’t speak English in the middle of rural Cambodia. I remember a girl from summer camp who had to carry around an epi-pen with her in case bees stung her. Can people be allergic to eating insects?
The hairs on the spider's body are still quite pronounced, despite the batter. I decide to go for it first to get it out of the way. My gag reflex is immediate. The spider is so gross. Smooshy and nasty. I should have known not to eat the back part, you don't eat the guts when you eat a crawfish, unless you're one of those people who sucks the heads just to terrify small children at crawfish boils. I look around for somewhere to spit it out, but I don't want to disappoint Sophoes. I swallow it. I get really light-headed. My face feels really numb, my throat tightens up, and I feel like I can't breathe. I probably just psyched myself out, I think to myself. I sit perfectly still for a few minutes, taking deep breaths and holding the head between my thumb and forefinger.
After what seems like an eternity, I feel confident that I'm not going to die of cardiac arrest. I look at the head, pop it in, and chew. It actually tastes…good. A little like crab. I'm surprised there's any meat at all on it. I look over at Sophoes and smile. He holds out the bag, "another one?'' ''No thanks, one was enough.'' He takes the last tarantula and eats it with gusto.
The second bag appears in front of me. ''Try one of these.'' I'm a little concerned by how many crickets are in the bag. I figure that I'm probably expected to help Sophoes eat all of them. Sophoes smiles at me and eats 2 crickets in quick succession. The crickets are a lot smaller, so they're less intimidating. I pick up a smallish one and examine it. The batter for the crickets is a light yellow. It has big eyes and the legs are a little gross. I open up my mouth wide and use my molars to chew it up quickly so I don't feel like the legs on my tongue. CRUNCH! It tastes kind of like popcorn—a little salty, a little sweet. It's actually very tasty. Sophoes tell me they're very good to eat with beer. I believe it. I stop after 5 or 6 crickets because I'm still slightly concerned about getting lightheaded after eating the spider, and Sophoes plows into the rest.
When we get back to Banlung, I become very curious about what I just ate. Sophoes said it wasn't a spider, but it definitely was. I do a little research and I find out that I had just eaten a fried tarantula. The Wikipedia article about fried spiders sums up the experience of eating one exactly: "There are certainly those who might not enjoy the abdomen, however, as it contains a brown paste consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.'' I look up the crickets (jung-reut in Khmer) and read an article about how cricket dealers catch them during ''cricket season''—they leave lights on all night long and put up large tarps. In a good season, a cricket catcher may ship up to 10 tons of crickets to Phnom Penh or to the border town of Poipet to export to Thailand!
I do a little more research on fried tarantulas and crickets in Cambodia and come across a Power Point of the preliminary findings of a field survey conducted from January to May 2012 by a Danish Master in Agricultural Development from the University of Copenhagen. The aim of the research is to assess the value of edible tarantula and crickets to the WINFOOD project, a joint enterprise with the goal to increase nutrition in rural communities co-sponsored by the University of Copenhagen, the Fisheries Administration of Cambodia, and the Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases at the University of Nairobi. The Power Point is optimistic. You can download it here: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/rap/files/meetings/2012/120531_ib3.pdf. I find it fascinating. I am reminded of the kind of research projects I did back in undergrad, when I majored in environmental studies and studied sustainable development.
While I'd eat a cricket again, I'll pass if I'm ever offered a-ping. Recently I found a gigantic Tropical Swallowtail Moth (Lyssa Zampa) in my hotel. Is it just me, or does it look rather tasty?