Beauty and the Bugs

Behold the majestic tarantula, king of spiders, and a mite tasty too, once you get the hang of it.

DSC06646One sunny-side up, fry an egg on the sidewalk, kind of day in Siem Reap found us strolling down the street with Katina, Oliver, Mikhaila, and Zoe, fellow travelers from Toronto on their own yearlong excursion. Our common mission: to conquer our fears and learn how to cook and eat bugs.

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It truly is the Backstreet Academy!

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Our classroom

The Fear Factor is an actual course offered through the Backstreet Academy, a very cool organization in Southeast Asia that offers courses in local homes: everything from crafts to culinary skills. We met our facilitator for the course, Samon, who guided us down the backstreets to an open yard where a cooking stall was set up, and our instructors, Ratana and Sophea, were ready to teach us how to cook our bugs.

It all sounds a little freaky, and indeed we were all quite nervous at the start, especially when we got a peek at the piles of crickets, larva and tarantulas we were expected to cook and eat. Ratana and Sophea gave us pop and beers to strengthen our resolve, and then took us step by step through the process of preparing and cooking the crickets.

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Crickets are the easiest to catch: just set out a fluorescent light at night over a trap and come back in the morning. Tarantulas, on the other hand, need to be dug up out of the ground. The best way to cook them, they say, is to coat them in a tempura flour mixture and then deep fry them. They turn out crisp, and taste like popcorn we are told.

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As we watch the crickets bubbling in oil, one of us says, “You know, it’s not that different from shrimp”, and suddenly our perception changes. Bravely, we try our first bug – well, three of us do; Eva is still a bit queasy from an upset stomach so she opts to sit this one out.

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You want me to believe this is like popcorn?

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Bug cuisine dates back to the days of the Khmer Rouge when people were starving and would eat bugs for protein. They would roast the insects over a fire. Deep-fried tastes much better, and you can see roadside carts selling bugs all across the country. Bugs have gone from a necessity to a delicacy.

After the crickets, the rest seemed easy. Even the tarantulas, with their heads and poison carefully removed, were downed with scarcely any hesitation.

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Nancy’s turn to cook. In case anyone wants to try this at home, the recipe is a mixture of sugar, salt, seasoning, tempura flour chicken powder, one egg. Adjust to taste.

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Coated and ready for the fryer

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A romantic moment: feeding each other tarantulas

That awkward moment, when you realize the other person has a tarantula in their teeth

That awkward moment when you realize the other person has a tarantula in their teeth

We had definitely overcome our fear, but I doubt you will see any of us opening up a street food bug stall in Toronto any time soon.

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Many thanks to Ratana and Sophea for an absolutely memorable day

So, why the reference to “beauty” in the title, you might be asking? It has to do with the second part of the day, when we stuffed ourselves into a tuk-tuk and drove 10 kilometres out of town to find the Lotus Farm and lotus silk factory.

Our driver assured us he knew the way, but after passing several lotus fields we realized he was driving to the town, not the farm. We’ve noticed this about Cambodian tuk-tuk drivers: they hate to ask for directions. Not like in India, where our drivers wouldn’t hesitate to pull over and ask someone.  One big U-turn and several prompts from Nancy to ask for directions, we find ourselves at the perhaps the most beautiful factory I have ever seen.

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Nancy finds the sign!

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On the roadside, and on the edge of a watery field there is a building with a large open floor.  Six women, or spinners, are at work at stations on the floor, slicing handfuls of lotus stems, then twisting and extracting the silk thread that lies within. They lay it out in strands on the table in front of them, overlaying with the previous strands, then deftly roll them into a single thread.  The whole cycle takes mere seconds, and each spinner can make 250 metres of thread in a day.

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Extracting lotus silk from the stems. Below: slice, spread, and roll

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The thread is then twisted and wound onto skeins in preparation for weaving. One weaver can produce about 50 metres of fabric in a day. This fabric is then used to make high quality scarves and garments which are sold at Samatoa, a fashion store in Siem Reap.

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To make a jacket requires four metres of fabric and 12,000 metres of fibre – that’s 48 days of spinning thread. It’s a labour intensive process, and the goal of the co-operative is to keep local villagers employed at a fair wage. Truly a fantastic factory!

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