Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tarantula, For Starters


When offered the opportunity to try a food that's extreme or taboo to our first-world culinary sensibilities, I pause and weigh the pros and cons. The pros, of course, always include a new taste sensation as well as bragging rights. The cons vary. I try to be as adventurous as possible, but even I have those gut reactions that keep me from trying certain things.

With dog it's the association with the pets we've grown to love, even though the food-bred dogs are a far cry from cute domesticated animals, but rather wolflike ur-dogs. With monkey it's the incredible power Darwin has over me. In Norway I passed on whale because I didn't want to eat any animal that smart. Yet I'm told that pigs are very smart too, and nothing would stop me from eating pork, not even the prospect of 72 virgins if I so martyred myself.

Bull's penis, for some reason, didn't give me much pause. And in Mexico, recently, I finally broke the insect barrier with chapulines, grasshoppers.

So if I could eat grasshoppers, why not tarantula?

I had the opportunity to eat tarantula at a restaurant in Phnom Penh called Romdeng (of which more in a later post). It was offered as an appetizer, crispy fried with a lime and Kampot peppercorn dipping sauce. It's served whole, three to an order. You eat it all, or at least I did, from head to legs.

The frying gives the tarantula a dry, chewy consistency, almost like a jerky on the outside with a slightly mushier middle. The flavor I'd describe as crablike, much better than the musty taste of grasshoppers. I guess the crabby flavor makes sense, as spiders and crabs are fairly close relatives, both arthropods.

It turns out that the Cambodian taste for spiders developed during the horror times of the Khmer Rouge regime. It started out as a sustenance food, but people discovered they actually liked the taste of the little critters, and now they're a prized treat.

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