As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and throw it in my mouth, my brain – hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself – revolts. But it's too late. Sensing the cricket's prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep-fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.
“You're right – it's not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.
My partner, Marina, isn't convinced. “You have a leg stuck in your teeth,” she says.
As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai's walled city in northern Thailand.
“You've got to try one,” encouraged Tim, a British friend with a peculiar appetite for weird foods, as he munched away on the barbecued crickets as nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn.
On this trip, that crunchy cricket – which I was picking out of my teeth for some time – was merely the gateway to my adventures through Southeast Asia's culinary oddities.
I dined on frog, which had the consistency of tough lobster but, disappointingly, tasted like chicken.
I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.
I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.
I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.
The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.
As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate. “They're just spiders,” Long reassured us as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.
According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot's regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists. Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas was pushed toward me. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider's eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.
Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was petrified of biting into the tarantula's meaty body. But as I bit into it, I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG and salt in which it was cooked.
By the end of our trip, I had to be honest with myself: Despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul. The most violent assault on my gustatory sense occurred in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. A vendor offered me durian fruit, which looks like a bowling-ball-sized lychee and has a highly pungent odour. If you can get past the smell, you'll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.
In truth, I'd choose tarantula over durian any day.
Special to The Globe and Mail