Fried spider, anyone?

If you think sheep brains or frog legs sound bad, then how about crispy spider? For some, says Ross Duggleby, it's a delicacy.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A quick twist of the fangs and the spider is rendered poison-less. A thumb squeeze of the thorax and it is left lifeless. As it is tossed on to a pile of around 100 other arachnid cadavers, the cooking is ready to begin. When finished, they will be hurriedly motorbiked to the dusty town of Skuon and touted alongside other delicacies such as dried crickets and stuffed frogs. But these other snacks are definitely secondary to the spiders; treats of the eight-legged variety are undoubtedly Skuon's most famous export.

Just over an hour outside the capital Phnom Penh, Skuon sits on the main route to Angkor Wat - Cambodia's biggest tourist draw. At first glance, it appears to be little more than a dusty trucker's stop; perhaps a dozen scruffy roadside restaurants round a roundabout carved from the tracks of passing vehicles. But few drive through Skuon without halting their journey, and the roundabout has grown increasingly fuzzy at the edges as bus after bus skids to a stop to grab its fill of arachnid treats.

Phnom Penh resident Punthea Khoeun has come to stock up on fresh Skuon spiders, or "a-ping" as they are locally known. "I just love them," she says, "every time I pass through Skuon I have to stop, but today I've come specially." Like many other connoisseurs, Punthea has a particular taste for pregnant females which, laden with eggs, offer both enhanced nutritional value and taste.

The origins of arachnid consumption, however, are founded in necessity rather than extravagance. During the years of terror and genocide instigated by the Khmer Rouge, the spiders played their part in saving the locals of Skuon. As they were driven deeper into the jungle to avoid persecution, starvation was rife and culinary invention became essential for survival. The size of the Skuon spiders was undoubtedly their shortcoming - reaching up to 15cm across they were an obvious source of vital protein.

But since then, the taste for them has become more enduring, and Skuon has managed to capitalise on its eight-legged friends. Deang, a 19-year-old local girl, stands with an arachnid platter held proudly aloft like a silver-service dinner tray. A huge live tarantula hangs on her blouse like a brooch; apparently a must-have advertising accessory for the throng of spider vendors, who all sport at least one as part of their working attire. There are perhaps a dozen vendors on one side of the roundabout alone. They buy bags of live specimens in bulk from spider-hunters, paying around 350 riel (5p) for each one. They place their orders every morning safe in the knowledge that they can usually sell up to 300 a day.

The usual method employed by the hunters begins by locating a hole, each one the home to a single spider. After inserting a stick to locate the route of the hole, the ground around it is hacked away with a hatchet-like implement. The disturbance usually causes the spider to flee, at which point it is at the mercy of the hunters. But the spiders are far from submissive, and in their struggle to survive bites are common. The blackened, (omega) swelling flesh and agonising pain have become occupational hazards, dealt with not by orthodox hospital treatment, but the spells of voodoo doctors; a remedy fully believed in by the locals.

The spiders are also believed to have a range of medicinal properties. For the treatment of coughs and bad chests, for example, a live spider is grilled (frying is believed to worsen the chest problems), and left outside overnight to collect dew, before being eaten. But their primary use is undeniably gastronomic, and the cooking process results in a delicious, protein-packed treat.

In a small farming village, about five minutes from the Skuon roundabout-side sales point, Deang prepares a new batch. After a thorough washing, the cooking process begins like any good meat dish, with a simple marinade. Unfortunately, the ingredients used are not exactly haute cuisine. After dousing them in monosodium glutamate and red food colouring, the next addition is a sachet of Knorr ready-mix. The spiders are then showered in sugar to appeal to the punters' sweet tooth and left to soak for about half an hour. With some surviving the thorax squeeze, a number of legs twitch weakly among the mass of black bodies. But it's not long before they meet their end as they are plunged, 30 at a time, in burning hot oil. After five minutes in the wok they are plucked out and tidily arranged on a platter ready to feed Skuon's demands.

For many families, the revenue from spider sales is a vital supplement to their more conventional agricultural incomes. Selling at 10 for 5,000 riel (65p), families such as Deang's earn about half of their livelihood from spider-related activities. "There will always be spiders here," claims Kun, a 22-year-old spider hunter, "and as long as there are spiders, there will always be people to eat them." Judging by the relentless flow of customers, their confidence seems well-founded, and Skuon's name among Cambodia's most curious visitor attractions seems set to endure.