Tarantulas: Cambodia's disappearing delicacy
Eating a fried tarantula has become a popular photo opportunity for tourists in Cambodia. However, this delicacy is in danger of disappearing, thanks to deforestation and over-harvesting of the spiders.
The moment you arrive at the market square in Skuon, you see the tarantula vendors. Most are young girls, who think making tourists shiver by putting whole spiders in their mouths is tremendous fun.
"Spider, sir? One for 2,000 riels!"
That's about 50 cents (42 euro cents) for what is considered a delicacy in Cambodia, and particularly in Skuon, a town on the road to Cambodia's Kampong Cham province that has earned the nickname "Spiderville."
But supplies of this traditional snack are running low.
Cashew and rubber plantations are fast replacing Cambodia's forests, which are also under threat from a massive illegal timber industry. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the county has lost 20 percent of its forest — which is where the tarantulas live.
Fried tarantulas are sold at public markets, like this one in Skuon
Still, in that which remains, spider hunter Soy Lon doesn't have much trouble finding her quarry. "They dig a hole in the ground," she told DW. "I've been hunting them for more than 20 years, I recognize these places."
And sure enough, it takes Lon just a few minutes to find a tarantula's burrow and pull the creature out with her bare hands.
Lon's children gather around eagerly. They must have witnessed this scene hundreds of times, but they still shout and squeal with excitement — especially when the spider suddenly escapes their mother's grip and scurries back home.
But Lon is a pro. She retrieves the arachnid effortlessly, caressing it as if it were a pet. Despite the tarantula's fearsome reputation and dangerous fangs, it appears completely harmless and calm in her hands.
"I learned how to do this from my father and my uncle," Lon says.
Tarantulas must be defanged before cooking
A family tradition
Cambodians have hunted tarantulas for food and traditional medicine for generations. But under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, famine made it a necessity.
Soy Lon's aunt, Yee Thon, is 65 and remembers those days well. There were many more tarantulas back then, she recalls.
"They were really everywhere," Thon told DW. "We used to make a fire to drive the spiders into their holes. Once the fire is out, they feel there is no more danger and they usually all come out so we could catch them easily."
Yee Thon has lived in Skuon for decades and remembers tarantulas being far more common
Thon used to wrap the spiders in banana leaves and grill them. Nowadays, they are mostly fried.
Lon arrives home with a bucket full of spiders. First, she removes the living animals' fangs with a pair of tweezers. They may be tiny, but those teeth can give a nasty bite.
"I got bitten once by a big spider," Lon says. "Immediately, my hand started to feel very hot. I rubbed my hand in sand the whole day to cool it down."
Once the tarantulas are defanged, Lon's children play with them, letting them crawl all over their bodies. Then, they clean them with water before their mother kills each one with a sharp jab to the abdomen. "If you know how to do it, it goes really fast," Lon says.
The cooking process is simple, too. Lon rubs them in salt and herbs and drops them into hot oil. They are ready in just a few minutes. "They don't have blood, it's like frying shrimp or lobster," she says.
Lon's family gathers around the table to tuck in to the fried arachnids
The children wait hungrily at the table and are soon crunching away noisily, legs dangling from their mouths.
They are said to taste something like crab meat, and are just as nutritious.
But with the pressures of deforestation, experts say these days, tarantulas should make up only the occasional treat.
"It's not just habitat loss, but also over-harvesting to meet high demand that is driving the spiders out of existence," Thomas Gray, a biologist and director of Science and Global Development at Wildlife Alliance, says.
Gray doesn't think Cambodia's tarantulas will become extinct anytime soon. But if future generations are to enjoy Spiderville's famous cuisine, the authorities ought to act now.
"I think there should be more regulation about hunting and how many spiders a person should be allowed to catch," Gray says.
Known as san-nakji in Korean, the freshly severed and uncooked tentacles of a longarm octopus are a delicacy. Even after being detached from the animal's body and drizzled with sesame oil, they continue to move. And because their suction caps are still active when the dish is served, diners are advised to chew very carefully to ensure their dinner doesn't attach to their throats and choke them.
Mushrooms are a global delight, the picking as much as the eating. However, given the similarity in appearance between different species of fungi, it pays to err on the side of caution when foraging. Amanita phalloides, also known as 'the death cap', is a case in point. A highly poisonous specimen, just half a cap is deemed enough to kill a human being, primarily through kidney and liver damage.
For those who eat the giant Namibian bullfrog, timing is everything. The rule to adhere to is not to kill it before the so-called "third rains", which have probably not yet occurred if the frog is croaking excessively. Anyone who doesn't want to wait that long must line the cooking pot with dry wood. The price for ignoring this old wisdom could be fatal kidney failure.
Elderberries are packed full of a flavor that lends itself to syrups, pie seasonings, jams, chutneys and even a liqueur, but they should always be cooked, and used only when ripe. In their raw form, they contain a toxic alkaloid. And even worse, elderberry leaves and stems can produce the lethal cyanide and should be left out of the kitchen altogether. So think again on that elderberry leaf tea!
One of the most expensive delicacies in Japanese cuisine is fugu, a pufferfish, whose liver, intestines and ovaries contain a lethal neurotoxin known as tetrodotoxin. Only those with a special license are allowed to handle the fish, which has claimed several lives over the last decade. Death from fugu is said to be very painful.
Although not quite as rare as pufferfish, the humble spud can also pack a poisonous punch. It's all about the color. Although we're told to eat our greens, that advice does not apply to potatoes. Green ones can contain a toxic compound known as solanine, which if consumed in high enough concentrations, might lead to vomiting, headaches and in extreme cases coma or death.
The ancient Viking dish of hákarl, or decomposed Greenland shark, has endured as a national dish of Iceland. Because the animals are toxic to humans, once caught, they are decapitated and buried in sand, gravel and stones for up to 12 weeks - time enough for their liquids to seep out and for fermentation to take place. They are then cut into strips and hung to dry for several months.
Carambola, more commonly known as starfruit, are sweet and tempting additions to a vibrant platter. But foodies beware — they contain an unnamed neurotoxin that, while easily processed through healthy kidneys, can cause serious problems for anyone with kidney disease.
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