A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Daring dining in Cambodia

A Cambodian worker walking at the Baphuon temple in Siem Reap province, some 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh. It has taken half a century, but archaeologists in Cambodia have finally completed the renovation of the ancient Angkor temple described as the world's largest three dimensional puzzle.

By Neeti Mehra,
Hindustan Times
October 18, 2011

After three glorious days spent hoofing through northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap’s stunning temple complex, the Angkor Wat, there’s not much left to do in the quaint, touristy town. Except for sampling a tarantula. Bros, the guide, curls up his nose at the thought. “Ah, you can get bad tummy,” he says. That’s hardly reason to discard the urge to gorge on a hairy arachnid. It helps not to know what a tarantula looks like. But it doesn’t help if the introduction isn’t exactly ideal.

The vendor of choice is tucked in a sleepy curbside in Siem Reap, which transforms into a groaning board of critters once dusk falls. Crickets, frogs, water bugs, roaches and the crispiest of them all, deadly tarantulas, are stacked up on steel plates like Mount Meru, the mythical perch so gloriously depicted in the Angkor Wat. A feast is already on, courtesy common house flies. The tarantulas, palm-sized, hairy and black, with their legs awry under the lamp light hardly look worthy of gourmet pickings. Chastising Bros for this unfortunate selection of fly-ridden area, the old market and its rambling food section is the next stop to try our luck.

A bug’s life

The story’s hazy as to when the a-ping crawled into the culinary vocabulary of Cambodia. North to the capital city of Phnom Penh, lies a town called Skuon, the capital of these critters, just a short distance from their burrows. Bros was a mere tot during Pol Pot’s inhuman regime, and lived in a labour camp separate from his family. His only memory of the place is waiting for the sound of the gong, rung twice a day at mealtimes. The daily two bowls of rationed rice soup lead to widespread starvation in the regime, and he with his friends would scourge harvested paddy fields for grains of rice, or anything edible. It was perhaps then the tarantulas and other crawlies met their edible fate.

But tarantulas are not the chink in his armour, like the crickets, specially prepared by his wife, a family delicacy. It’s a slow process that involves trapping them in fields, preparing them, and cooking them on slow flame with coconut milk. His favourites are crickets stuffed with peanuts.

The feast

Siem Reap’s bustling old market reflects the gastronomical prosperity and variety that’s come in with the tourist. Tabletops totter under piles of palm sugar, an assortment of aromatic teas, bags of piquant curry pastes, glistening fruits and slabs of meat. A food vendor has a familiar tray of Tarantulas, and the 20W bulb is perfect to enjoy a meal that goes down the annals of grotesque feasts: a deep fried, salted Tarantula, one leg at a time. In the dingy light the a-ping looks harmless and tasty. And it’s rather expensive, 0.5 dollar or 2000 Riel for one.

"The body is bitter,” Bros had warned. A-ping etiquette requires the whole spider to be scarfed down in one go. It’s hardly time to throw caution to the wind. The leg is tasty, crispy and twig like, and that’s the farthest I can go, letting the store keeper enjoy the rest of her bulbous a-ping. She’s thankful, and I’m relieved, for my last and final supper.

The best time to visit Cambodia: December and January. Avoid April when the temperature soars to 40 degrees Celsius.

Getting around: Hire a quaint tuk-tuk or Remok. Pay $1 for short distances or hire one for the whole day for around $12-15.
Visit: Passes to the Angkor Archeological Park are sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks.
Shop: Visit the Angkor Night Market and the noon to night market to pick up souvenirs, clothes, trinkets, or get a back massage for $1.

Do: Visit Angkor National Museum (www.angkornationalmuseum.com) and enjoy a traditional Khmer meal and the Apsara dance at the Apsara Restaurant–Theatre (www.angkorvillage.com).

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