Cambodia offers a lot in the way of profound experiences. You could marvel at the giant faces of The Bayon and be mesmerized tuning into the times of God Kings of yesteryear, or be completely confounded with the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and utterly fail to comprehend any of it, whichever way you look, Cambodia leaves a deep impression on you. Some will inspire while others will suck the soul right out from you – and then, there are the terrifying experiences, found in the most unexpected of places, its local cuisine. They hold some of the most bizarre delicacies that are the stuff of nightmare, luring giants of the culinary world, the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Anthony Bourdain into the country to confront them. Exciting, terrifying, un-appetizing and tempting at the same time, the things you will find are unlike anything you have had the pleasure of devouring. Having been through it all, here are 5 of them that I have made my peace with, some I have grown fond of, while others I have cemented my fears for.
Ah crickets – the ideal starting point to get acquainted with Cambodia’s bizarre delicacies. Daunting at first, crickets embody the proverbial ‘it’s not as bad as you think’ in a classic way. Once I had my first, second and third, I kind of wanted more of it, but that first bite took a lot out of me.
It started with convincing myself that these are in fact dead crickets, that they wouldn’t suddenly leap and startle me – followed by a possessed few minutes staring into nothingness, grimace amplified, thinking to myself, is this the day I eat a cricket?
After those few minutes of tense, muscle cramming moments, I finally mustered the courage to hold one, as far on the tip of my fingers as physically possible. Once in contact, I felt a bit relieved with the physical realization that this cricket I was holding was indeed lifeless – from then on, the familiar aroma of fried garlic, spring onions and fried oil offered an ounce of relief. The ordeal wasn’t over yet. The task of putting the creature in my mouth still remained. How could it be that I got myself into this? Alas, there was no escaping this – and with that realization, the cricket was in my mouth and washed down with a can of beer. A smile, a laughter and then what many have probably said aloud, ‘its not as bad as I thought!’.
Popularized during the Khmer Rouge as a necessity when the nation was rife with hunger and malnutrition, crickets among other insects provided a valuable protein rich diet. Said to have more protein than beef pound-for-pound, cricket are easier to farm requiring a lot less resources than cattle to harvest.
Also said to have been introduced into the mainstream cuisine during the Khmer Rouge, these eight legged creepy crawlies are a thing to behold. First of all, it’s not everyday that I see a giant spider, and to think of eating it, that’s got to leave a scar of some sort.
What’s more, the abdomen is the prized part of the spider but they also happen to be the most disturbing thing about spiders. They’re massive, hairy and squishy. Forget the legs, head and torso, if you’re a local, you care only about the abdomen. They contain the eggs and like with anything that is remotely disturbing to eat, is said to have aphrodisiac properties – not the least bit convincing. My first experience eating one of these spiders resulted in the abdomen breaking off the torso and falling to the ground (probably from the jerking reaction of the first bite). To my surprise, the fallen thing was quickly picked off the ground by the local hosting me to this dreaded experience, put back into the oil, left to simmer for a few seconds and given back what was rightfully mine to eat. I declined. Never again I told myself and that was that. For anyone with the nerves to experience not only eating, but preparing and cooking these creepy crawlies should check out the Fear Factor Challenge offered by Backstreet Academy in Phnom Penh.
3. Duck Fetus
My first encounter eating a duck fetus was a result of a video I watched of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I was researching for interesting culinary experiences as part of Backstreet Academy’s offering in Phnom Penh and that short documentary on YouTube piqued my interest for duck fetus. Having seen a stall selling fetus a street away from where I worked, I decided to try one. I went to the stall and placed an order.
It’s served hot of the steamer and accompanied with salt, pepper, lime extract and herbs. The initial horror of peaking inside the cracked open shell took me by surprise. It was difficult getting past the visuals of what looked like tiny feathers, beaks, eyes and legs. I didn’t dwell on the initial reaction too much and decided to attempt a first bite – I almost threw up! Not wanting to offend the vendor, I took a few more spoonfuls, this time however, with a heavy doses of the salt, pepper and lime mixture – it went down marginally better than the first bite. I rested my case with duck fetus.
4. Water beetle
My first experience eating a water beetle came long after my first taste of crickets. They somehow look more reserved and less inviting – and there’s something about the shiny smooth backside and the ‘armored’ belly area that will never settle well with me. Nevertheless, a friend happened to have a bag of water beetles and poked at my ‘adventurous’ side to try one. I gave in. I was by then more experienced in suppressing the resistance to eating abnormal food, however, there was one caveat this time. A water beetle requires a lot more work than simply popping one in your mouth, you have to go through the process of removing its multi-layered wings and break off a sharp pointed spear like thing that protrudes from below its torso, reasons enough to avoid eating them altogether.
After the agonizing ritual of removing the wings and breaking off it’s pointed body part, I finally ate one. The taste didn’t appeal and the texture was coarse. It tasted exactly the way it looked, bland and ‘unfriendly’. Once was enough.
5. Snake wine
Found in most of Southeast Asia, this has to be one of the most terrifying drinks. Made mostly from venomous cobra snakes, this drink includes a full cobra snake within a bottle of rice-based liquor (they sometimes come with a bonus venomous scorpion). The venom from the snake or scorpion, which is protein based, is said to be ‘neutralized’ with ethanol in the alcohol and thus ‘unfolded’ when it reacts with it, deeming it harmless.
I haven’t dared to attempt and confront the almighty cobra and perhaps one day I will. But many a tales of local alcoholic drinks turning tourists blind have kept me at bay and only within the safety of experiences of other peoples’ tales. Not much can be said for the taste as it is acquired and drank mostly for medicinal purposes. The drink is also known for its aphrodisiac properties, how true that is, one can only speculate. The alcohol also comes with ginseng roots and other herbal ingredients that are popular in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
If you’d rather just stick to dollar beers or want a fix of the capital’s favorite watering holes, you need not look further. Here is backstreet’s guide to the best bars in Phnom Penh.
So there it is, my brush against Phnom Penh’s most terrifying food. If you’re looking for things to do in Phnom Penh and subscribe to the idea of ‘experiencing everything once’, I would recommend trying these (maybe not the snake wine).