Updated: Dec 13, 2019
This will be my first post on the so-called "bizarre" or "weird" food that most travellers have came to call those "abnormal" food that they have neither encountered before nor imagined eating them. Unless the food is really too extreme, I choose not call them that. There are many reasons why locals eat certain things or why the food are being processed differently. As travellers, we should not call them weird based on our lack of understanding of their histories, cultures or lifestyles.
I prefer to call those "abnormal" food simply as "dare" food. They are different from our usual staple, so it is a matter of whether we dare to try what the locals eat. I may not like what I tried but at least I know how they taste like after trying. I will start the "Dare Food" series of posts on iPackTravel with Cambodia since I posted an article on Angkor Wat recently.
Planning a trip to Angkor Wat?
The photo (above) shows a little girl buying balut (half-developed duck embryo) from a street vendor in Siem Reap. It was on seeing what she was eating that I realised what the lady vendor was selling and I went for one too. If a little girl can eat it, why not me? And I dare you too.
By the way, I have actually 4 snacks and 3 dishes but I use "7 snacks" in the title for convenience. Check out all the seven.
1. Fried Spider (Tarantula)
Fried Tarantula is a popular delicacy in Cambodia — well, among the locals. These large spiders can be found in several places in Cambodia, but more popularly in a small town called Skuon, about 75km from Phnom Penh. It was said that the locals started eating the spiders in the mid-1970s due to starvation caused by the Khmer Rouge regime and it has continued till today as a form of snacks. The villagers either breed the spiders in holes or hunt for them in nearby forests.
The snack is prepared by deep frying the whole spider in oil — "whole" means everything that belongs to the tarantula are all in there.
There is no need to travel all the way to Skuon to try the fried spiders, unless you have tried before and is going there for a spider feast. If you have not tried it yet and are daring enough to go for just a few, look for this arachnid snack at Phnom Penh Central Market (or Phsar Thmey). They are usually sold by street vendors.
Do note that the vendors fried the spiders to sell for income to support their families, they are not exhibits, do not take photos without supporting them a little. You may take a couple of photos of the spiders after buying some but do ask for permission if you are including the vendors in the photos.
By the way, the locals will eat the whole spider and will also tell tourists to do so. As foreigners who have never tried one before, eat the head and legs but avoid eating the abdomen, which contains the organs, possibly eggs and excrement! I ate my first two spiders in whole but my luck ran out on the third one. The abdomen stank!
Fried tarantula is available only in Cambodia. So, make your next trip to Cambodia an unforgettable one — if you dare to make it an adventure of yours.
Balut, or developing duck or chicken embryo, is commonly found in some parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The egg is usually boiled and the content eaten from the shell with condiments. The Siem Reap version that I tried was accompanied by pepper, salt, a slice of lemon and some herbs that I could not identify.
This local delicacy is available mostly from street vendors around market places, so you will need to search for them if you wish to try.
After peeling off the shell, the content may look ghastly and that is the sight that scares off many travellers. However, once you can overcome that psychological barrier (the visual impact), and eat it, you will be convinced that it taste just like hard-boiled egg and duck meat (or chicken). By the way, you don't have to eat the head with its beak and the feathers.
This balut was my first but it was not my last. I had another go at some more in Saigon, Vietnam, when daring fellow travel mates to try. Again, I dare you too.
3. Fried Snake
Another unusual specialty of Cambodia is the fried snakes. The snakes are usually skinned, put on skewers and fried.
Well, I did not call it a delicacy. There is hardly any meat and a lot of bones. The little meat around the bones was hard as wood and the bones refused to give way to whatever was inside it. After trying for several minutes, I gave up. It was hardly edible.
I tried just this one snake from a street vendor and I am not sure if this is how fried snakes are supposed to be eaten. It did look like the snake had been re-fried at least twice. Unless you can poke the meat and see that it is soft and edible, else don't waste money.
I had snake soups in Taiwan and Hong Kong before so I know snake meat tastes like chicken. When chicken is over-fried to the extent of almost being burnt, the meat will be the same as this snake meat.
4. Fried Insects
Fried insects are very common in most parts of the world, so I will not elaborate in details. If you have not try them before, give them a go. They do not really taste that bad because after being deep-fried in oil, they are all crispy and smell of cooking oil. Just like over-fried french fries.
Fried crickets (above) and fried cockroaches (below). If these insects are to be your first time trying, do go for the deep-fried ones. They are easier to try and score some dare points. Apart from these, there are also grasshoppers, water bugs and maggots too.
5. Big Ants
Cambodian dishes with big ants are usually served in restaurants. I tried this stir-fried eggplant with kangkong (Chinese spinach) and big red ants in a local eating house in Phnom Penh. There should be another version with beef and ant larvae, but I got only the big ants dish at this place.
Look at the photo carefully (it's slightly blurred due to the poor lighting), those are not red chilies but big red ants. Anyway, the ants did taste mildly sour and you will not even notice their existence in your mouth.
6. Grilled Cow Meat
Along a street in Phnom Penh is a row of restaurants selling grilled cows (no, I didn't make a mistake, I did say "cow" not "beef"). Whole cows (without the heads) are skewered on rods and grilled outside the restaurants. To order your dish of grilled beef, you need to point out which part of the cow you want to the staff. He/she will cut out the selected part and grill it above the charcoal before serving.
You probably have eaten a lot of beef or steaks in your life, be it tenderloin, rib eyes, etc, or probably, you just called it "beef". But when asked to select the desired piece of meat from a cow directly, will you know where to point?
If you know your beef and select a good part, you may enjoy your meal. If not, try again another time and select a piece from another part, but it will be better to search for some answers first. Anyway, we picked a section on the front thigh.
The meat was average as it was too well-done. But what was more interesting was the skin. I had never eaten cow skin before and the staff had cut it into pieces and fried it with the beef. As it turned out, the skin was hardly edible (well, how can cowhides be used to make leather if it is easily edible). We went for the layer of gelatin fats under the skin.
Somehow, most of the beef that I tried in Cambodia were pretty tough, not sure if it is the Cambodians' culture or preferred way to eat tough and chewy beef. But Cambodian beef noodle soups are really good, you can go for them too.
(Note that new regulations from the Cambodian government prohibits the cows to be grilled in public, so you will have to find the restaurants before you see a cow being grilled inside the restaurant or at the back.)
7. Kangaroo Meat
There are kangaroo in Cambodia? Well, this is not the Cambodian's local food but imported from Australia. And if you have not tried kangaroo meat before and is going for Cambodian barbecue, why not give it a go too. This meat should not be that hard to accept.
We tried this at a restaurant called Cambodian BBQ in Siem Reap some years back. They have other exotic meats like crocodile, ostrich, and snake. But since we had tried the others before, we ordered a bigger serving of the kangaroo meat (ordering all the exotic meats would be very expensive). And it tastes something between beef and mutton.
Are you game enough to try these exotic food and snacks on your next trip to Cambodia? These could be the next adventure stories you are about to tell everyone back home.
More daring food for you?