Since I am promoting my new travelogue, The Wanderer, which will be published this October, I thought I should tell would-be travelers that they are not obligated to enjoy the local cuisine. I like Russian food. Heck, I like English food. Both cuisines are often trashed by travelers, whereas Sichuan food is coveted everywhere as a phenomenal taste sensation. Personally, I cannot tolerate its spices.
It takes a while to develop a taste for some cuisines and, even if you don’t come to relish them as food, trying them is always an adventure. I recall a visit to Cambodia. My first stop was Mondulkiri, a province along the Northeast border of Cambodia and Vietnam. I was having breakfast in a local hotel. Two small demitasse cups of bitter coffee were stacked in front of me. I fumbled with the wrapper on my gluten-free, kosher halal bar—no trans-fat, sesame and cashew nut protein bar—deliberately taking my time to avoid being overwhelmed by the smells assaulting me from the bowls of sour fish soup, rice and pork, and savory noodles that filled the air of the tiny restaurant. It was too early in my trip, and in the day, to partake in mystery food, although my food exploration improved as the trip continued.
Then in Phnom Penh, my host’s son, Sengte, challenged me to a dinner of A-ping—grilled giant jungle spiders. The spiders are actually native to the forests surrounding the village where I lived and worked while organizing elections for the United Nations in 1993. (I ate ants back then. Ants managed to get into all our food, but I had demurred from the tarantulas.) The legs tasted like fried string. I avoided the belly. A few days later, I was treated by Sengte’s uncle to a bowl of bird’s nest soup.
Twenty dollars a spoonful! It sells for four hundred dollars an ounce, so I ate about four hundred dollars’ worth. The raw material—a bird’s nest found only in caves—comes complete with bits of feathers (and who knows what else), which are then cleaned and scanned to make sure that they are bacteria-free. The soup is reported to make pregnant women strong and their new babies healthy; it’s also supposed to reverse aging. Because of its rarity, it cannot be exported. Forget snorting a fortune in cocaine! You can drink your fortune away with cold bird’s nest soup. I was on a roll with the local cuisine—first spiders, then a bird’s nest. It was a unique experience, but I still looked and felt sixty-seven. I’m pretty sure that one bowl of soup won’t make you young.
Before the trip ended, I had one more culinary adventure. After chewing on the legs of giant jungle spiders and downing a bowl of bird’s nest soup, it seemed almost okay to swallow a boiled black water beetle (better than sipping out the brains of a live monkey through a straw—another Khmer delicacy that I’ve avoided to this day). I was out on a small lake, Tonlee Battaey, for a picnic with Meng, Sengte’s father. We bought a pot of steamed beetles from a seller in the floating market. After Meng peeled off the hard outer shell and the prickly pincers, it was the time of reckoning. I popped the beetle (the size of a walnut) into my mouth, got one good chew, and swallowed it down. Actually, it was tastier than the spider and reminded me of Louisiana crawfish.
Bon appétit. Try it, you might like it. Then again, who knows?