FOOD! I love food. It’s delicious and generally useful for curing hunger. Except when you’re traveling, in which case “delicious” might mean “different” and what you eat may empty your stomach rather than fill it.
Fortunately, on my recent trip to Cambodia most of the food I ate truly was delicious, and my stomach held up just fine.
During our brief sojourn in the province of Tboung Khmum, we dined thrice daily at a restaurant we affectionately dubbed Café Americano (above) in reference to its being the safest option in the area for barang, or foreigner, stomachs. This open air museum of flies, stray dogs, and whatever food the family of chefs had the ingredients to fix provided us with a staple of rice, noodles, and soups for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I’ve always had a soft spot for breakfast food, and Cambodia didn’t let me down (despite the lack of sausage or biscuits and gravy). Our early AM repasts included meals like rice and omelette with soy sauce, garlic, and chilies or this beef and noodle curry topped with fresh sprouts, basil, and lime – and a fly on the chopsticks (above left).
When you start your day with flavors like garlic, basil, and chilies, you generally need to make sure lunch is just as thrilling. When frogs appeared on the nonexistent menu one day, we ordered a dish of grilled ones to complement our dose of rice and coconut juice (above right).
The frog, which indeed tastes just like chicken, proved far more enjoyable than the coconut, which was served at room temperature (90-something °F) with a straw poking out of its shaved head. The warm thickness of the juice inside made me feel like I was drinking plant blood, but I slurped its nutrients down anyway to replace whatever I had lost in sweat that morning.
After our few days of work in Tboung Khmum, we headed back to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Feeling a little peckish on our road trip , we stopped for some street treats and feasted on the likes of fresh mangoes, dried bananas, sweet potato chips, hard boiled duck eggs, and deep fried tarantulas.
Because, you know, when you’re in Cambodia…
Long dead, its hairless legs stiff with rigor mortis and solidified oil, this tarantula was no longer crawling, but it was still pretty creepy. Ripping off a couple of its legs with my teeth, I realized they actually weren’t that bad. Kind of like beef jerky, chewy with a spicy tang to it reminiscent of barbecue sauce.
Confession: While I ate all the legs, I couldn’t quite manage to bite into that abdomen.
While street food vendors like the one above sold quite a tantalizing variety of additional options, like locusts, cockroaches, and silk worms, I figured the tarantula was a good enough helping of the creepy-crawly food category for me. Now for some food that didn’t move in its former life…
This mango vendor was quite the expert at peeling and slicing her mangoes, tossing the prepped fruit into a plastic bag for us to enjoy on the road. Unfortunately, in comparison to the mangoes I grew up with in Pakistan, I was a little disappointed in this crunchy variety of the fruit. While it was convenient for eating in the car, I was hoping they would be more like my childhood mangoes and their syrupy sweet juice dripping down my chin with every bite.
During the week, we made it a point to try a new fruit every day. Both rambutan, with the hair of a pubescent alien (above left), and mangosteen, with its woody eggplant shell (above right), hid beneath their monstrous skins a thick white flesh that tasted sticky sweet and slightly sour. Both required some nails and a good grip to rip them open as well as a dose of tolerance for sticky, stained fingers and stringy pulp between your teeth.
We also tried the pods of a lotus (above left), which tasted fresh and nutty with a soft kind of crunch. It appeared everything was edible in Cambodia…until we stopped for some durian (above right).
Known in Asia as the stinky fruit, buses won’t even allow passengers to carry durian inside because the fruit emits such an unbearable stench. Somehow Cambodians still love it.
I managed to swallow one tentative bite of the sickly mushy interior with its squashed-banana color and texture. Tasting an initial hint of mango-like sweetness, I thought at first it would be edible. But then the sweetness dissolved from ripe fruit to rotting fruit to the stank of a mango that exploded into diarrhea and congealed for days inside a sweaty old shoe.
I’ll take a tarantula any day over another bite of durian.
And I’d take a frog over a tarantula any day too.