Few animals look as unappetising as spiders. Not only are they a many-legged nightmare for every self respecting arachnophobe, but they also look about as meaty of a bundle of twigs. However, as many communities around the world prove, there’s more to this spindly snack than meets the eye. In the right hands, spider can go from disturbing to delicious.
No culture demonstrates this better than Cambodia. For certain communities in the Southeast Asian nation, deep fried tarantula is considered a staple and highly sought after street food. Most closely associated with the small town of Skuon, a-ping - as it is known locally - has a tradition that can be traced back to the days of the Khmer Rouge.
A typical recipe calls for the spiders to be gently boiled in salted water before being plunged, whole, into a wok of bubbling oil. The result is a gnarled, crispy husk, about the size of a human palm. Despite a subtle taste - occasionally likened to something between a chicken and a cod - the food is highly prized for its contrasting textures and delicate flavour. The head and legs contain an almost crab-like meat, while the abdomen, highly prized in some circles, is a bitter mix of organs and excrement. It may take some getting used to, but a-ping’s enduring popularity speaks for itself.
There are two ways to approach a tarantula hunt. The first is far more rudimentary, and involves finding a spider hole and digging the creature out. The second requires considerably more skill and arguably bravery, as hunters must thrust a stick into the creature’s burrow, wait for it to attack before quickly pulling it out. Using these methods, one hunter can catch and sell up to 150 spiders in a single day.
Unfortunately, such is the demand for the unusual specialty from both tourists and locals, this dish is coming under serious threat. Street vendors, who specialise in catching and cooking the eight-legged arachnids, have noted that tarantulas have proved increasingly hard to come by in recent years. A closer look at the local environment reveals why.
No country is at greater risk of deforestation than Cambodia. According to the Associated Foreign Press, more than 20% of its forests have disappeared since 1990, to be replaced by cashew tree plantations. This dramatic transformation has prove a disaster for the nation’s diverse wildlife, including tarantulas.
The spiders themselves live exclusively on the forest floor and need the cover afforded by unspoilt jungle. The destruction of the forests that they rely on has left vast numbers either exposed to the elements or buried in earth broken by machinery. No longer given the protection they need, numbers have plummeted.
Today, a delicacy that was once plentiful is increasingly hard to come by. Prices have soared for tourists and locals alike, and the food is no longer an ever present all year round. Thanks to dramatic changes in the Cambodian environment, this unusual delicacy could be not long for this world. Anyone who still wants to taste tarantula needs to hurry before it’s too late.