First unearthed by starving Cambodians in the dark days of the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” rule, Skuon’s spiders have transformed from the vital sustenance of desperate refugees into a choice national delicacy.
Black, hairy, and packing vicious, venom-soaked fangs, the burrowing arachnids common to the jungle around Skuon do not appear at first sight to be the caviar of Cambodia.
But for many residents of this market town, the “a-ping” – as the breed of palm-sized tarantula is known in Khmer – are a source of fame and fortune in an otherwise impoverished farming region.
Discover the good (?) taste of Cambodia’s tarantula’s…
Spider City Skuon
“On a good day, I can sell between 100 and 200 spiders,” said Tum Neang, a 28-year-old spider-seller who supports her entire family by hawking the creepy-crawlies, deep fried in garlic and salt, to the people who flock to Skuon for a juicy morsel.
At around 300 riel (eight US cents) a spider, the eight-legged snack industry provides a tidy income in a country where around one third of people live below a poverty line of $1 per day.
The dish’s genesis is also a poignant reminder of Cambodia’s bloody past, particularly under the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal four years in power from 1975-1979 left an estimated 1.7 million people dead, many through torture and execution.
For the millions forced at gunpoint into the fields, grubs and insects such as spiders, crickets, wasps and “konteh long” – the giant water beetles found in lakes near the Vietnamese border – were what kept them alive.
“When people fled into the jungle to get away from Pol Pot’s troops, they found these spiders and had to eat them because they were so hungry,” said Sim Yong, a 40-year-old mother of five. “Then they discovered they were so delicious,” she said.
It’s the taste
For Roeun Sarin, a 35-year-old minibus taxi passenger on his way to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, the Skuon spider is definitely a matter of taste, not history.
“I cannot go through Skuon without having a few spiders, I love them so much,” he said, as yet another crispy tarantula disappeared into his mouth. “They taste a bit like crickets, only much better,” he added.
Goodbye to backache
Conservationists and vegetarians might blanche at the relentless pursuit of so many spiders for the sake of a snack, but locals are confident the arachnid population will hold up.
According to aficionado Tum Neang, the best spider is one plucked straight from its burrow and pan fried with lashings of garlic and salt over a traditional wood fire until its skin goes a deep red-brown colour.
Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, it should then be served piping hot.
But the spider’s remarkable popularity does not stop with its taste.
Like many Cambodians, Chor Rin, a 40-year-old market stall trader, swears by its medicinal properties – especially when mushed up in a rice wine cocktail.
“It’s particularly good for back ache and children with breathing problems,” she said, dipping a glass into a jar of murky brown liquid, at the bottom of which sits a rotting mass of hairy black legs and bloated spider bellies.
“People could not afford medicine under the Khmer Rouge so they had to use traditional medicines. They drank it and it made them feel stronger. ”
“With the wine, it’s very important they still have their fangs or the medicine loses its power,” she said.
For truckers making the long trip up to Cambodia’s northern reaches, a bracing slug of the liquor is an obligatory tonic, and a litre of top grade spider wine can fetch as much as $2, a huge sum in local terms.