In Siem Reap, a party city if there ever was one, eating insects and other creepy crawlies is more akin to bravado than feeding oneself. However for the people of Cambodia, who have been pummeled by decades of war, atrocities and poverty, eating such things has been in the past a matter of life and death.
From the little kids chomping on maggots like we go through beer nuts, to the tourists emitting shrill screams when they see a fried cockroach, is there an in-between?
Here’s the little guide to eating bugs in Siem Reap… something I’ve experienced first-hand.
Eating Insects: Water snake
Yeah, snake isn’t an insect… but it’s still a creepy-crawly.
Eating snake in Southeast Asia is nothing new, and water snakes are everywhere in the swamps of Cambodia. So when I first caught a glimpse of the yellowish, S-shaped snake-on-a-stick being sold street-side, I casually got myself one. My road partner – a 22-year-old French student – thought I was nuts. But I just wanted to see what all the fuss is about! The hawker, a local in his mid-thirties who was working with the help of his two young sons, kept saying “tastes like chicken” to people staring at the stick. Time to test this theory.
The snake is quite long and there’s enough meat for a whole meal, on there. My first reaction was to try and take a bite off of it, but the hawker’s youngest son jumped from his stool when he saw me take the stick to my mouth – “no, no, no”, he yelled, “use your hand!”.
So I tore the snake – not without difficulty – in half, pulled one piece off of the stick, gave the stick to the young vendor, and broke a bite-sized piece. And then, with a few tourists staring at my face with amazement, I simply threw it in my mouth.
It tastes like a muddy, rubbery piece of old chicken. The taste isn’t so bad since it’s been fried with sugar and salt. But the skin is very difficult to chew. After swallowing some of the meat and a lot of the juice, I took a plastic bag and spat out the skin. It wasn’t bad, but…
Eating Insects: Maggots
I tried to pass the rest of my snake to other tourists who all refused with a grimace on their faces. I ended up giving it to the hawker’s youngest, who gladly took a plastic bag and set the remaining snake aside for his own midnight snack.
This same hawker had a few other morsels on offer. So I asked my French friend to run off to the store and grab cold beers. Let’s try them all… with a chaser!
Next up were little maggots, deep-fried with chilies and spring onions.
These were much easier to eat. Their size presented no issues whatsoever and the seasoning was very nice. The only issue I had was that they explode when you first chew on them, releasing some sort of juice that tastes of rotten coconut meat.
I can totally understand why some people would like them as a beer snack… because my friend came back with a couple of cold Angkor cans. I washed the maggots down with the beer and it didn’t taste bad at all!
Eating Insects: Crickets
On to the next, then. Soldier on!
Next to the maggots laid the crickets, tiny, also deep-fried, dressed with chilies, spring onions, garlic and chopped peanuts. At this point, I wasn’t fazed at all, and my courage rubbed off on my adventure partner for the evening. The crickets looked almost appetizing. I got a handful, and tasted one by itself. I then moved my hand suggestively to the picky Frenchman, who grabbed one, and then to a few of the onlookers. None of them refused!
You know the texture of good roasted chicken skin? Crunchy-tender, salty and fried, nutty with a hint of sesame oil… These were good, plain and simple.
Eating Insects: Cockroach
But the next step isn’t as easy.
Things taste of what they eat. That’s one of the reasons why mud crabs have me be rinsed and fed good things before they’re eaten: otherwise, they would taste lake mud.
Cockroach is not a bug that eats delicious things.
I asked the young hawker’s son how to eat these. He just motioned to throw it in your mouth. Which I did.
Dirt, mud, filth, something sour/fruity, and the wings have a tendency to stay stuck between the teeth. Not great. Pass me the beer, please.
Eating Insects: Giant Water Bug
If the cockroaches are quite smaller than the water bugs, and if the water bugs are definitely ugly, I reassured myself that these, at least, eat better things than cockroaches.
At this point, there was no turning back, I had to eat my way through the whole cart. It’s a question of pride, bravado, and maybe a little bit of inebriated idiocy.
These things are large, though. And there was no way I was going to shove that right in my mouth. I took a dollar out – every item was one dollar, and they usually offered a plastic bag filled to the quarter, though I asked to get less than what they offered, since I didn’t want to eat too much of them. When I did, the same young man proceeded to grab a bug and remove the wings and head. He then gave me the body and said “suck! suck!” Just like the head of a prawn, the goal here was to squeeze and suck the meat and juices out of the body.
The meat of the water bug has a much unexpected taste. It kind of tastes like unsweetened grated nutmeg! The texture is gooey and a little bit like the horrible vanilla pudding cups I had in my lunchbox when I was a child.
Note: If eating bugs off a street food cart isn’t your thing, check out Bel Around The World! Her post about Kampot, Sihanoukville & Koh Rong is off the beaten path for sure!
The kid then took a chopstick and fished the brains out of the head and gave me the chopstick to lick, with pieces of insides hanging off. I turned around to look at the rubbernecks passing by. The faces were priceless.
Eating Insects: Tarantula
This is where things got hairy – literally.
A group of younger travellers got enticed by the cart and wanted to have their pictures taken with every single bug – a Facebook moment, surely. And so before they swarmed the place I got myself a tarantula and walked away, my French friend in tow with our beers. My friend, who’d just seen me eat my way through bugs and reptiles, simply couldn’t believe I was going to eat a deep-fried tarantula.
I grabbed it, ripped off a couple of legs and ate them. They were supercrunchy, the little hairs on the spiders legs tickled my tongue (in a horrible way), and the seasoning made them sweet and salty and somewhat fishy. On to the torso: it had a similar texture to softshell crab, but the juices inside are fetid, creamy, gunky… and it turns from crunchy to chewy to rubbery to impossible to swallow… is it because they weren’t cooked properly? Or fried too long ago? We’ll never know.
What’s next? Toads?