I recently answered one of those “get to know you” Facebook questions about the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. I have never seen so many “puking” emoji and gif responses in one place (except for a few political posts – but I am not going there). It created such a stir I decided to turn it into a blog post for foodies…or pukers. Warning: do not read prior to or following a meal.
Traveling as a woman alone in Cambodia for the first time has its own set of safety and location ignorance challenges, so I opted to take a tour with Intrepid Travel – knowing I wanted to spend several days at the Angkor Wat complex, take in a traditional show, and perhaps sample some unique Cambodian food. Little did I know I was going to receive a bit more local flavor than expected!
The great feature about these particular tours in Siem Reap is that they tend to be size-limited groups and the number of people varies depending on the day. One day we toured in a 10 passenger mini-bus and then the next two days our group was only three and then two along with our local tour guide, Sokhom. Once you get down to such intimate groups, the agenda is allowed to be thrown out the window and for the most part, we were able to vote on what we wanted to do/see. Having two gastronomy adventurers along – one a Chinese woman from Australia and one a wandering soul from the UK – we voted to nix the “tourist” restaurants (serving traditional dishes like Amok fish and green mango salad) and go for REAL local food where the locals eat.
The first stop was a roadside stand showcasing insect delicacies like cockroaches, fried slugs, crickets and whole frogs. Once a poor man’s abundant source of good protein, you now see insects on many high-end restaurant menus in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia.
It was here I had my first taste of these delights – some might call disgusting. Sokhom, our guide, put a chili fried cricket in my hand and gave me the go-ahead nod. I popped it in my mouth and to my horror, my rag-tag group of travelers yelled: “Noooooo, you must first pull the hind legs off”. Just as those prickly little dead legs attached to my tongue, I snatched it off, pulled off the legs (in my foodie failure embarrassment) and popped it back in my mouth. Not bad, I thought. Even the entire frog – head, bones and all – was not too extreme for me.
However, it was the cockroach which left me a little squeamish that hot, humid afternoon. These protein-rich pests are basically pan-fried in a little bit of oil (check out other cockroach recipes). The wings remain crispy, so the real treat is the interior gooey guts. All you do is peel off the wings and scoop out the creamy innards. I am not sure if it was the heat and all the previous bug feasting or if it was the mind games of actually EATING a COCKROACH, but this left my stomach a little unsettled.
Our next stop was a local Cambodian restaurant off the beaten path on the outskirts of Siem Reap. We were heartily welcomed by the family to their open-air establishment where we enjoyed some local bottled Cambodia national beer, dining on traditional salads, rice, and BBQ – watching dish after dish pour out of the kitchen. As a true treat for us (being their foreign guests of honor with fat wallets), was a fierce food challenge for me – again! The owner slipped away behind the kitchen hut and gathered a duck to sacrifice for our dining pleasure. The neck was slit and its blood was drained into a pitcher. While it was still hot, we were treated to duck blood soup – fresh duck blood poured over a rice and greens mixture. And I thought the cockroach was a challenge? The blood was warm and the taste was tinny. While my tourmates dove in with gusto, I opted for a couple dainty spoonfuls mindfully keeping my gag reflex in check. I lounged on a hammock for a while after the meal wishing I had brought some Pepto-Bismol on this tour.
The next day this Chinese-Australian food warrior and I set out again with Sokhom – who had amazingly heartbreaking childhood survival stories of torture, starvation, and loss in this war-torn region of the 1960’s and 70’s.
After our day of touring, we stopped at a local beer shack on the road. It was a little family-owned business – seriously nothing more than a modest hut-like home, a food prep area, and a couple of bamboo decks to sit and eat – where you will not find tourists. The extremely welcoming father and daughter gave us a tour and made a little snack plate of dried snake and a few other mysterious food items with chilis. I wish I had written down the names of everything, but the moonshine (disguised as “beer”) had gone to my head! I am a foodie failure!
My short time in Siem Reap was an incredibly educational experience on all levels. However, I am most likely going to leave the cockroaches and the fresh duck blood to the locals on my next visit!