woman with live spider and very dead fowl in the bowl

I generally like my bugs to remain at a distance. That especially applies to arachnids, which I prefer far, far away from my person or, maybe behind glass in a terrarium at some zoo’s insect house.

But some Cambodians like their spiders up close and personal, preferably on a plate, deep fried and steaming, with competing but oddly complementary textures — crispy legs balancing the more fleshy, gooey abdomen.

Cambodians have a higher threshold than us weak-stomached westerners when it comes to food – especially the once-living kind – and its presentation. While we like our meats shrink-wrapped and filleted, usually bearing little resemblance to the original animal, Cambodians are brutally honest about where their protein comes from – likely in part is because refrigeration is a luxury many can’t afford so fresh meat means keeping it alive as long as possible before chowing down.

Here you see big slabs of bloody meat lying out in the markets under the tropical sun, or tables piled high with severed pig heads and hooves, baskets full of gasping fish waiting for the relentless cleaver of a market woman doing her thing on the pavement inches away from passing scooters and pedestrians. Often you’ll see whole bodies of steer driven through with a spit and left roasting on busy intersections. Last year, I was offered frog-kabob by a roadside seller. I politely declined.

Dig in. There's plenty for everyone

This year, on a weekend trip to the town of Kompong Cham, about two hours by car north of Phnom Penh, my friend and I noticed we were passing through Skuon, Cambodia’s fried spider capital. I lobbied for a stop, to notch up the food revulsion response. Pig heads and piles of mysterious innards had become old hat.

Skuon has learned to capitalize on its notoriety. The little town has erected a sign that has a sculpture of two big spiders at its base. We pulled into a little market a little further down the road and the driver pointed to our left. Sure enough, there was a woman carrying a bowl piled high with a blackish, leggy mass – tarantulas, ready for the eatin’.

Of course, the sight of two westerners getting out of a car and gawking brought over a swarm of sellers, mostly young girls, some of whom spoke surprisingly good English.  While I was snapping away at the bowl of crispy critters, and the fried crickets nearby, a girl’s voice behind me said, “Here, do you want to hold it?” I turned around and inches from my face was a live one, a tarantula taking up most of her palm, starting a journey up her wrist.

'They're sweet, really'

I erupted with a “Whoa! No, no, no thanks” while simultaneously jumping back about a foot. “But they can’t bite, look,” she said, turning it over and showing how the tips of the spider’s fangs had been cut off. The spider then made its way up to her neck while she tried to convince me to take it off her. My courage failed me. I bought some bananas and pineapple from her. The spider and I remained physically unacquainted.

Not every Cambodian likes to snack on spiders; some find the thought as disgusting as my western palate does. Some sources say the delicacy is a recent phenomenon, perhaps arising from the desperation of the Khmer Rouge years, when people were starving and would eat anything they could get their hands on.

The spiders are harvested from their underground burrows with long sticks. I saw a big bucket of live ones, for sale as well, I guess, to some industrious cook who will fry them up in oil with maybe some garlic and salt, perhaps some sugar.

The taste? I don’t know. Some say chicken; some say prawns. I’ve read the legs are best, but then I heard one man say the moist and juicy abdomen is the real delight – if you like your snack time to feature appendages filled with a slushy paste of organs, eggs and most likely, excrement. I’ll stick with Doritos for now.


Atkins, it ain't

Not much has suffered during my two months of life in Argentina, save my waistline. My belly isn’t hanging down over my belt just yet, but give me another two months with Argentine cuisine, and the Great Spillover might just begin.

How to sum up the Argentine diet?

Umm…meat and sweets.

There you go.

Argentines are big meat eaters. In 2007, per capita beef consumption was 149 pounds a year, according to one source, down from 396 pounds per annum in the 19th century. Yikes.

I mean, they do have good reason to enjoy consuming cow – their country is one of the major producers of the stuff (the country has just under 40 million people and some 50 million cows) and its quality is way up there. The majority of restaurants seem to be parrilla (grill) places offering numerous beef cuts, chorizo sausages, blood sausage, short ribs, breaded meats, pork, barbecued chicken, and so on, ad infinitum.

This was tea meant for two

But hey, why be forced to choose just one animal part? Go for the gold with the meat feast platter – oh, I forget the name. The first time I saw one of those being carried out – a large, raised platter heated from below piled at least four inches high with cuts of meat – I thought some banquet was happening in the next room. It was for the family of four at the next table.

But man, after a while, it gets to be too much. I’m no vegetarian, and am really not a health fanatic when it comes to my diet. But here, order a hamburger or a lomito and what you get is heart attack on a plate.

The beef, that’s fine, but usually it’s covered in a slice of ham, a half-inch layer of melted cheese, and then an egg, boiled or fried. Oh, don’t forget the sea of French fries that come with it. Tired of that, there’s pizza and pasta, which Argentines eat mountains of. Cream and red meat (really?) sauces are preferred.

Desert anyone?

My typical breakfast

Oh yes, there is the divine dulce de leche, a thick caramel paste that once must have been the nectar of the gods. It’s often layered between short-bread cookies dipped in chocolate (alfajores), or stuffed into mini croissants dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or simply eaten out of the jar by addicts like me, until they go into sugar shock.

Don’t forget the flan, which also has a dulce de leche variation, or the gelato stands on every street corner, where for about US$2.50, you can get a big Styrofoam container overflowing with three of your favorite flavors. They say it has less fat than American ice cream, you know, so what’s the harm?

Note the empty nature of the jar

I don’t know why Argentines, with all these high-carb, high calorie, big-portioned meals, aren’t just huge. The men do tend to be bigger than Europeans after, say, the age of 40, but they don’t in any way approach the American girth. What gives? They’re not all dancing tango 24/7.

So I complain and I regret and I just continue to eat it up. Asceticism can wait until I return to Berlin. (I don’t want to talk about it!)

In fact, after I wrap this up, I’ll probably head out to the restaurant here in Iguazú recommended in my guide, supposedly the best in town. What I’ll order? Probably a big hunk of cow flesh and a glass of Malbec.

Because when in Rome…