Nov 28 2010

Along Came a Spider

Here’s something I have never craved for dinner:  spiders.  Too bad, then, that tonight we went to dinner at a place in Phnom Penh called Romdeng — a delicious place specializing in Khmer food and staffed by former street children. (The parent organization, Friends International, seems pretty great.) We’d heard that it served a traditional Khmer treat – deep fried tarantulas – and whereas I laughed this off as the sort of food one might gawk at in a night market but never think of actually eating (such as the scorpion kebabs on offer in Beijing), Peter insisted that he was going to try them. “You know how you feel a weird need to visit traumatic sites just to absorb their history?” he asked me (I was the driving force behind our visit to Tuol Sleng). “I feel a need to eat weird food.” I was going to challenge him on this until I remembered his unfortunate choice or ordering smoked pigs’ ears in Lithuania. Oh god. I can still see the hairs.

Sure enough, when we got to the restaurant, deep fried tarantulas were on the menu – a starter, should you be wondering – and Peter ordered them. As we waited, we discussed what we thought they might look like. Both of us were imagining that they had been dipped in some kind of batter, and would be presented as a sort of tarantula fritter, so coated in tempura that their true arachnid nature would be completely camouflaged, nothing more than a stomach-turning afterthought.

We were wrong.

Our smiling waitress approached our table with a white plate, garnished with artfully carved cucumber and a small dish of dipping sauce. Arranged around the greenery were three large tarantulas, each the size of my palm. There was nothing batter-y about them. They were still clearly black; even their hairs were visible. These were just straight-up tarantulas, dipped in oil and fried.

“It looked like they were alive,” says Peter, remembering the scene. “They really looked like they could crawl away.”

He later claimed that once he took the first bite, it became easier to swallow. In the moment, Peter didn’t seem particularly reassured after he first sampled a leg. In fact, his exact words were, “This is going to be much harder than I thought.” Then he spit out a small clump of something black.

But what are you supposed to do? You’re in a restaurant staffed by former street children who probably grew up struggling to find food, and here you are with three palm-sized spiders, artfully presented – they came with a garnish, for god’s sake. What kind of asshole doesn’t finish their tarantulas?

So Peter plowed on. After working his way through a leg, he gamely bit into an abdomen, a bulbous pouch of spider innards. “That didn’t taste so good,” he said. I pointed out the dipping sauce.

As I giggled and took photographs, he started in on what we later learned was the body and the head. According to wikipedia, they have “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 of what we later learned was the thorax. “It’s really not so bad.”

He was clearly becoming delusional.

“No, seriously,” he said, gesturing toward me with a half-eaten tarantula body.

I looked more closely. I’d never considered the idea that spiders might have meat inside, but this one did. It was white and flaky and looked a bit like fish. Now, I would never have ordered the tarantulas on my own. But this was probably my once-in-a-lifetime chance to try one. 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.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. It tasted meaty and fried, but that’s about it. Emboldened, I broke off a tiny piece of leg and popped it in my mouth. It left behind an unchewable crunchy material, sort of like a shrimp shell, that I spat out into my napkin. I decided not to eat any more tarantula.

My favorite part of this photograph is the leg pressing into my cheek.

Peter, on the other hand, kept going. By the time they cleared his plate, only an abdomen and several orphaned legs remained. What’s more, he had begun to insist that the cooks had cleaned out the spiders’ innards and replaced them with  stuffing. “See, they all have splits on their backs,” he said. “It tastes like tamarind.”

I was doubtful, and so we checked out the recipe for the tarantulas in the restaurant’s cookbook, the aptly titled “From Spiders to Water Lilies.” It begins as follows: Step 1 – Kill the spiders by pressing firmly on their backs. Step 2 – remove the fangs.”

It says nothing about tamarind fillings. Also, as we later noted, pressing firmly on their backs to kill them would likely cause the splits in their shells that Peter insisted was evidence of their being stuffed. According to Wikipedia, here is what Peter mistook for a tamarind filling: “a brown paste, consisting of organs, possibly eggs, and excrement.”   A good chef , the entry continues, will fry the spiders until the legs are almost completely stiff, by which time the contents of the abdomen are not so runny.

We later asked our waitress where the restaurant got the spiders – we both were envisioning a cage full of live tarantulas in the kitchen, similar to a tank of live shrimp. But she told us the spiders arrived dead, having been gathered from a nearby province.

“How do they raise the tarantulas?” I asked. “Are they farmed? You know, like fish?”

“No,” she said. “They use a flashlight to find them. They are in trees or in holes.”

That’s right, all you Alice Waters foodies out there: our tarantulas were free range.