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Cambodia's surprising cuisine: Spiders, anyone?

RestaurantsTravelCricketDining and DrinkingGucci Group NV

 

As the sun set over Angkor Wat, the temple built for King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, I nosed my Vespa out into the line of three-wheeled tuktuks, bikes and cars. In my pink crash helmet and Gucci bike goggles, I felt as frivolous as an extra in the '60s movie "Quadrophenia," but my mission was a serious one: I was planning to travel the nearly 200 miles from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in three days, stopping on the way to sample some of the weirdest and most wonderful foods Cambodia has to offer.

Before leaving Siem Reap, however, I headed for Le Tigre de Papier cooking school to get a handle on Khmer cuisine. I put my foot in my mouth — before even taking a first bite — when I mentioned the influence of Thai food on Cambodia's culinary offerings. Heng, who runs the cooking course, scowled. "Let's get one thing straight: We influenced their food from 9th to 13th century when Thailand was under our rule. Khmer food came first, and the Thais copied from us."

Despite Heng's understandable chauvinism, the influence of other cultures on Khmer cuisine can't be ignored. Cambodian food has distinctive flavors — including the use of preserved lemons in dishes such as the chicken soup ngam nguv — but it was Chinese traders who introduced noodles; the Indian influence is shown in the coconut milk and turmeric used in curries and desserts; and the French presence is clearly seen in that Khmer breakfast, a baguette smothered with liver pâté.

PHOTOS: Cambodia's unique cuisine

That evening Heng took me to the food stands surrounding Siem Reap's night market. The aroma of spicy barbecued meats swirled around us as we made our way through the vast souk and bagged two of the few empty seats next to a long line of food carts. "When you first come to Cambodia, people tell you never to eat street food, but if you want to eat the best of Khmer cuisine you should never eat anywhere else," Heng said.

We sat at rickety plastic tables and ate cháo lòng, a flavorful rice broth dotted with cubes of congealed blood and served with tubular chunks of tripe.

Emboldened by my first encounter with Khmer offal, I ordered plea sach ko — a version of laab made with beef tripe, toasted rice and cilantro — the next morning for breakfast. Sweet and salty with a hint of spice, it looked hideous but tasted delicious and gave me the courage to head out on my cream-colored Vespa in a convoy of tuktuks, honking trucks and mopeds leaving Siem Reap.

It was June, the wet season, so I wasn't surprised when rain started lashing down. I was taken aback, however, when the road fizzled out and became nothing but a muddy potholed track. By the time I reached Chong Khneas, a floating village on Tonle Sap lake about nine miles south of Siem Reap, my scooter was chocolate brown, and I looked as if I had indulged in a leisurely mud bath.

Luckily the rain stopped and I stripped to a T-shirt as steam rose from southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake. Hopping on a boat, I took the two-hour trip to Kompong Phluk, the lake's largest settlement, where I visited a prahok shed to see the hanging fish whose odoriferous fermented juices and flesh are used to make Cambodia's ubiquitous fish paste.

Next I headed for a bamboo food hut on stilts and ordered frog amok. A variation on Cambodia's signature dish fish amok, the entire frog (not just its legs) was steamed in a banana-leaf basket along with prahok, turmeric and coconut milk. Served with a zingy green papaya salad, the chopped frog was tender and tasted like creamy chicken.

That evening I was caught in the rain and stranded in the little town of Damdek. I managed to locate a homestay, where I slept under the eaves — with the family snoring on a mattress next to me and pigs snorting in their pen below.

A couple of hours' drive from Damdek, the tiny town of Skun is home to Cambodia's largest concentration of tarantulas.

I visited the fascinating breeding project and the edible insect exhibition at the Skun Spider Sanctuary, where I learned that arachnids are a gastronomic delicacy in Cambodia. "Along with lizards, scorpions and rats, they were introduced onto the menu during the famine under the Khmer Rouge regime, but now they have become so popular that there are fears they could be hunted to extinction," sanctuary employee Sopheap told me.

In Skun, the market stands were piled high with fried crickets, grilled locusts and braised a-pings, as the beleaguered arachnids are known locally. All around me school kids and old women were buying the spiders. They are black, hairy, as big as a hand and, at 50 cents each, didn't come cheap. "We fry them to destroy the poison, then dip them in garlic and salt," a vendor said.

Steeling myself for the big one, I browsed the stands, sampling crickets (bland and crunchy) and locusts (meaty and the legs stick between the teeth) before buying a bag of tarantulas. Shutting my eyes, I dipped my hand in the bag, pulled off a leg and nibbled. Surprisingly, once the initial revulsion wore off, the taste was not so bad. The texture of the a-ping was rough and crispy like a pork crackling, but inside it was tender and fatty and tasted a bit like cod.

"The head is the best bit," said an old woman, with half a spider in her hand, half in her mouth. I decided to take her word for it and offered her the rest of my bag. She accepted gratefully and made short shrift of the three arachnids inside.

A lazy putter along the N7 brought me to Kampong Cham, a bustling town along the Mekong River where I spent the night in a rundown guesthouse and ate termite-egg soup, popping each tiny egg between my teeth to enjoy the salty, slightly sour taste.

From Kampong Cham it was a three-hour trip on the N6 to the traffic-clogged Japanese Friendship Bridge — built in 1993 to replace the original bridge that was blown up in 1973 by the Khmer Rouge — and into Phnom Penh.

Parking my steaming Vespa outside Romdeng, I took my seat at this restaurant set in a charming colonial house. Run by former street children, Romdeng is renowned for its local cuisine.

After an entree of fried spider served with a spicy lime dipping sauce, I tucked into the green mango and wild snake salad. Pungent and chewy, the dried snake, complemented by the silky sweet mango, was superb, and I congratulated myself on finding the ideal place to finish my scooter trip.

PHOTOS: Cambodia's unique cuisine

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