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Cambodian Tarantula: Food for Thought

I’ve been living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for over 4 months now.

By no means am I an expert on all things Khmer, but I am learning to adjust to the differences. One major area of change has been my diet. Gone are the big steaks of Australian Prime beef, and in their place, deep fried crickets and tarantula.

That might be a little misleading. To be honest, Cambodian food is amazing. Fluffy white rice is considered the main meal, with beautiful curries, soups and lightly fried meats. Just lovely.

But, you can’t say you’ve eaten genuine Cambodian cuisine until you’ve tried tarantula. Those big, hairy, and downright ugly spiders.

Slowly cooked in a large batch of oil, with strong hints of soy and fish sauce. The little critters are fried until they are crispy and blackened.

After four months, I finely got around to trying my first one the other day. I made the purchase of one spider for the princely sum of 2000 riel (50 cents U.S., I think I got the tourist’s price). And to be honest, I found the whole experience, a little bit, slightly odd ways.

The taste made me think of what deep-fried hair might be like. The heavy soy and fish sauce flavor helped to get the bits down that I could manage. To say I am a bit squeamish would be an understatement. But I strongly believe you have to at least to attempt new things, especially if you want to really connect with foreign cultures.

The whole experience has gotten me thinking about how cultural delicacies arise. I’m sure some arise simply because they are fantastic examples of food, but at the same time, I have sneaking suspicion some exist solely because there were or are no other options. The Cambodian countryside is brimming with potential foods: grubs, crickets, spiders and even little rice field crabs.

I was out late on night with another westerner. We were waiting to pick up my wife from a Friday night meeting she was having at Woman’s dormitory (my local church provides some free accommodation for young people as they study and work in the city).

We were standing on the darkly lit street. My fellow westerner was a new visitor to Cambodia; we were talking about the poverty surrounding us. While we were in discussion, we failed to notice the young street kid make his way towards us. We were startled when we heard a little voice behind us.

The little boy was maybe 10 or 12 years old. He was dressed in dirty old clothes, and he looked like he had been living by his own wits for a long time. I’ve been learning some Khmer, so I said hello, and asked the little man how he was. He said he was ok. I asked what his name was, and I taught him my own. He smiled a ruddy little smile, and waved me over to his small cart. He took out a plastic bag, and proceeded to show me his precious find. Two live crabs eyed me intently out of that dirty plastic bag. The boy’s excitement at the find was contagious, my companion and I gave him huge smiles, and the universal sign of well done, the two thumbs up!

When my wife finally made her way down for us to leave, we turned to say goodbye to our new friend.

{sidebar id=3}He then started to ask for money.

Personally, when people come begging for money here in Cambodia, I feel uncomfortable. I hate the fact that people are forced into begging for money and food, since they are left without any other option. To make matters a little more disconcerting, some of these ‘beggars’ are recruited into begging rings, with their own pimps and territories. So rarely is giving a gift able to be innocently received. I live by the general rule, if a group floods me, I don’t like to pull out my wallet. But when its one on one, I usually feel I like to give a blessing.

But I didn’t give to the boy that night. I honestly felt a little intimidated being on the street that late at night, and I think I got a little overwhelmed by the environment.

He seemed ok with my answer. But I couldn’t help but wince when my westerner friend stumbled through saying ‘God Bless You’ in Khmer.

I winced because that child has probably never heard about the Christian God before, that he may have no understanding of what it means to be blessed, but most of all—I was uncomfortable with throwing around a phrase like that, without any physical response to it.

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The boy didn’t need words; he needed action.

Honestly, he needed more than any amount of money we might have been able to give him that night. He needed love, education, food and hope. Much more than disconnected words.

I’m starting to see the difference between words and actions. It’s nice to say nice things, but at the end of the day, is anything of lasting value being done?

I still want to say “God Bless” to people. But at the same time, I hope I might be willing to assist in being apart of that very blessing, or any other.

There’s an old preacher in Australia named Kevin Conner who says; “People don’t care what you know, until they know you care.”

The little crabs that the boy had weren’t much bigger than my palm, they stank, and they were covered in dirt.

But, they were all he had.

They were more than any empty word I had on the tip of my tongue.

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