Somewhere on the bus ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap a few weeks back, my Cambodian travel companion slapped my knee and grunted.
Glancing up from a book, I saw an enormous tarantula stuffed halfway into Hong's mouth. Four black legs and a bulging abdomen protruded from between his lips. It was a horrifying sight, especially for one not fond of spiders. As thick as pencils, the hairy legs moved as he chewed.
Hong delighted in my discomfort, slowly sucking in the remaining limbs as if they were strands of spaghetti.
"Now you!" he beamed, producing a plastic bag with at least 15 of the hand-size arachnids inside.
Earlier, the bus had stopped in Skuon, a town renowned for its snack market, where vendor's platters overflowed with fried water beetle, locusts and eggs containing embryonic chicks. Most popular – with both locals and tourists – was the a-ping (deep-fried tarantula), costing just 500 riel, or 12 cents, a spider.
These spiders, originally harvested from nearby forests, are now bred in burrows by the thousands. Plastic buckets crawled with live specimens, awaiting their time in the wok. A gaggle of young children followed me, carrying a particularly hefty tarantula, which they delighted in slipping onto my arm, shoulder or camera bag. They occasionally dropped the poor thing, which I worried might infuriate it, but the toddlers scooped it right up without worry.
"No poison, meester. No poison," they promised, which is only half true, because while the bite of a Thai zebra tarantula won't kill you, it is rumoured to be dreadfully painful.
No one can say for sure when Skuon became the tarantula-eating capital of Cambodia (and perhaps the world), but it's a fair guess that the practice evolved during the cruel Khmer Rouge regime (1975 to 1979), when food was desperately short across the nation. Today, the fried spiders are a popular treat for kids, and many Cambodian women believe eating a-ping can make one beautiful.
Back on the bus, Hong tore a leg off, the way you'd break a banana from the bunch. A flake of white meat protruded from the end, reminiscent of crab. I popped it in my mouth.
Since my arrival in Cambodia, Hong had feted (or perhaps tested) me with red ants, leeches, grubs and locusts. Everything – including the tarantula leg – tasted more or less like a potato chip: fried, crunchy and salty (probably MSG).
Hong clapped with glee as the leg went down. "Good! Bruce, good!" Then he handed me the rest of the spider.
As a rule, I eat everything I am served in foreign countries, not as a show of bravado but quite simply because I am interested in foreign flavours. Besides, any serious attempt at understanding a culture involves the breaking of bread (or spider's legs).
While travelling with the Bedu in Arabia, my companions and I dined on every imaginable part of goat, from eyeballs (that popped like grapes in the mouth) to vena cava (the vein that carries deoxygenated blood, which felt and tasted like a radiator hose). Upon slaughtering a camel, we heated its thick chest callus beside a fire and, in a manner reminiscent of Swiss raclette, scraped gooey mouthfuls – smelling of burned hair – from the melting surface.
In Hong Kong, while visiting a university classmate, roasted pigeon arrived at the table. Why do they bring the entire bird, I wondered aloud? Some old people like to eat the brain, Ed explained. Of course, I had to try. The skull was paper thin, and the contents rather bland. Later, snake soup was placed before me, surprisingly evocative of chicken.
One delicacy I struggle with is yak butter tea. This foul mix of black tea, emulsified rancid butter and salt is devoured in enormous quantities throughout the Himalayas, upward of 60 cups a day by some estimates.
"Think of it as chicken soup" is the common advice given to travellers, but the trick has never worked for me. Still, I manage to choke down a few mouthfuls at every sitting.
Now, as I cradled the tarantula in one hand, I realized that for the first time I might balk. To begin, the heft of the thing – more sparrow- than spider-like – was disconcerting. But my eyes were locked on the abdomen, which sagged below the crispy legs like a bloated water balloon. What was inside? The thought of it bursting in my mouth was horrific.
I held the spider for what seemed like hours (probably only 10 minutes) while Hong alternatively cajoled and berated me. I tried (oh, how I tried) to work up the gumption to pop the thing in my mouth. But just as I worked up the courage, an inner voice screamed, "NO!"
I handed it back in downcast silence. Hong shrugged, and began nibbling.
As the bus chugged past rice paddies and naked roadside children, I wondered if a sense of guilt and lost opportunity would flood over me. Perhaps I should have, literally, just sucked it up?
Surprisingly, I never experienced even a passing wish to have eaten the spider. Instead, it felt liberating to have found my limit, and stuck to it. My decision was reinforced several days later when I read that the abdomen contains a gooey, musty paste consisting of everything from eggs to organs to excrement.
Yes, red ants and camel callus are okay, but hold the tarantula, please.
Special to The Globe and Mail