A local woman sells fried tarantulas in “spider town”, and a young girl tells us about her spider.
Ohhh my god when I went to srok Khmer, we stopped by a small town near some pretty mountains (and of course lots of banana trees) for the tarantulas, which my mom had always wanted me to experience. I remember being really curious – about how the tarantulas would taste, if I would like them or not, if I was going to feel sick from merely thinking about eating deep fried tarantulas, etc. But hey, I’d already eaten crickets and frogs, so why not tarantulas? I liked almost everything deep-fried, anyway.
When my mom was ordering the tarantulas (aka watching them being deep fried in front of her), I was hanging out with the shop’s daughter. She was around my age if not one or two years younger (I was in grade-school at the time), was very brown, had hair damp with sweat, carried a large white bucket, and had a live tarantula crawling about her face. I walked up to her, smiled, and said “Hi” (I didn’t even say it in Khmer lmao idk why bc I could speak Khmer better than do I now but I didn’t say Chameab sour, oun or anything??). Because I spoke English, she didn’t say anything at all at first. Only when she realized my mom was talking to me in Khmer did she start talking.
She looked at me, excited, and asked, “Chong meur pingpeang khnom?” (Want to see my spiders?), and I nodded back with all of her excitement. The tarantula kept trying to crawl to her forehead so she kept on pulling it off and putting it back on her collarbone, and she lifted her bucket, and showed me… well, the tarantulas weren’t alive. I still thought she was cool, though. I mean, come on, she was walking around with a largeass bucket filled with deep fried tarantulas with her own pet tarantula (or so I thought lol) constantly trying to crawl on her face. I was pretty in awe over her. Thought she was badass, haha.
When all of my tarantulas were finally deep fried, my mom came to me, sweat beading her temples, but her smile as warm and wide as the air. She held the plate in front of me and told me to eat them now because they were fresh, and, y’know, yummy. So I turned away from the girl to go eat with the rest of my family. And I really did like them. (I remember when I went back to America, I told all of my friends about eating tarantulas and they would know me for that, hahaha.) I think I said the tarantula tasted a little bit like frog/chicken but had some bitterness. It was crispy and somehow had a good balance of saltiness and bitterness. I liked it so much, my mom ordered more and my family laughed, and my brother and I had a tarantula eating competition. I ate more than ten tarantulas at first, but I had to stop when my brother suddenly pointed out: what if the butts had poop all along??? That grossed me out a lot, lmao. So I stopped, and I went back to the quiet, smiling girl.
I immediately noticed a difference in that short five-ten minutes I’d been eating the tarantulas. Hers was gone. The pet, I mean. There was no fat tarantula with its long spidery legs trying to navigate her face. Her collarbones were bare, shirt plain. No tarantula. I think I was a little shocked, and I asked in English, “Where’s the tarantula?” Although she didn’t understand the English, she understood what I was saying. She opened her palm, and there lay a deep fried tarantula with its legs tucked in, and she took a bite, smiling at me.
And okay, if anyone went, “EWWWW, tarantulas!!!” or “Why the fuck would anyone eat tarantulas?” or “Asians are always eating nastyass shit”, here’s a history lesson.
People only started eating tarantulas during the Khmer Rouge regime (the KR was behind the Cambodian genocide). During the regime, the Khmer Rouge basically killed anyone rich and anyone educated. They only wanted the rural’s natives and anyone uneducated because the lack of education made them easy to manipulate. If you were educated, you were brutally tortured before being shot in the camps or you were just killed quick and clean before the evacuations even started. It was extreme, of course. You were even killed for wearing glasses. Money was also abolished, books were burned, and anything related to education was destroyed. If you were of another ethnic group other than Khmer (i.e. Chinese-Cambodians, Vietnamese, Chams, etc.), you were killed. The Khmer Rouge wanted a pure, classless society. Everybody was then evacuated to the country side of Cambodia to work in labor camps. And I seriously mean this when I say evacuation: the rest of the country were ghost cities, ghost towns, empty streets, empty homes after raids by the KR soldiers, and the list goes on. All empty. All gone.
Because city dwellers carried no knowledge in agriculture, of course famine was born as quick as all of the deaths, and flourished. Regardless, generally everyone starved. You worked before the sun had risen and throughout the day, and past sunset, when the night was as black as all of the soldiers’ clothes. And the labour camps varied. For some, you worked in rice fields. In other camps, you were digging trenches. Or you were at a camp where you were literally digging your own grave. There were many, many more. In all of them, however, you worked for ~15-20 hours every single day throughout monsoons, drought weather, etc., with one break for a meal if your work overseer decided to give you food.
When you were given food, think of Animal Farm at its lowest. It was nothing and it was shit.
You were not allowed to eat any more than what was given. If you were caught stealing plants from where you labored or from the woods around the camp, you were hung or shot in front of a gathering for everyone to see, so they would understand that they weren’t allowed to have anymore than what was given. But I mean, who the fucked cared when their bellies were so swollen, they couldn’t see their toes although they could see the ways their ribs would jut out beneath their skin? Not many. They just wanted to survive, and starving was not an option.
Kids and adults would scratch in the dirt for insects and other bugs. If there were ants in the dirt, they’d eat ants. If there were beetles, they’d eat beetles. It didn’t really help the situation due to the risk of getting caught and killed, of course, but it was still comforting that they were consuming something, somehow. The lucky ones were those who had tarantulas nearby, because that was much more fulfilling and probably didn’t have a bad taste either.
And that’s how deep fried tarantula came to be. After the Khmer Rouge ended, the tarantula not only stayed as a delicacy, but also a symbol of both Cambodia’s pain and resilience.
Such a powerful story and history lesson from a fellow Tumblr user who saw these pictures and was inspired to share a story from her childhood! Thank you, cnjt for giving me the opportunity to read this!