Romdeng, a restaurant in Phnom Penh, has its heart in the right place. It’s staffed entirely by orphans and gives them skills (and a salary) they’d otherwise not have. It’s the kind of place you really want to love.
But man, that place overcooks their tarantula.
Yes, tarantula. They came four to a plate, looking not much different than they might look scuttling about and biting your ass in the Amazon jungle. And we ate ’em. It was uncomfortable. But we did it. Fortunately, Portable Chef cameras were on the scene. Feel free to skip over to the videos now at the end of this post, or else indulge me in some bug-related rambling:
We generally don’t like to think about it, but there’s a great case to be made for more of us eating bugs (I’m using “bugs” to lump spiders and insects together in one quease-inducing, Temple of Doom-y bucket), primarily that they’re a cheap, readily available, easily sustainable source of protein. And in the case of ants, by all scientific measures it’s between us and them for global supremacy, so maybe we owe it to mankind to eat down our enemy’s numbers. But we’re squeamish. I remember a kid I went to summer camp with refusing to eat his PB and J because he had just seen a fly walk on it. If you’ve got the time, there’s an interesting TED talk on the subject:
I’ve not done a lot of bug-eating – I had some ants and crickets once in, of all places, this really cool Thai restaurant in the middle of tiny Santa Monica Airport, but those were a different thing – the ants, in particular, were so small as to make it easy to pretend they weren’t ants; they just gave an unusual crunch to a stew-y dish. But this was different. Tarantulas are huge, a whole palm’s worth of spider apiece. And the dish arrived without much else. No vegetables, rice, or other adornments – just a tiny bowl of dipping sauce and four thick-ass tarantulas. The spiders were deep-fried. The legs were pretty good; they were crisp and could have been just about anything.
We were a little unnerved; I think the video shows pretty clearly how put off we each were (and, if I may, how much moxie we had for pushing on regardless – especially Angela, who went first). When it was my turn to go, I kept poking the tarantula and quickly pulling back my hand for fear they’d scuttle off of their plate and get all up in my business; no different, really, than those monkeys when they see the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (keep an eye out one minute in on front row center; you can jump directly to the moment here, but it’s a scene worth the two minutes).
Is there a movie that’s shot more beautifully than Kubrick’s film? I sure can’t think of one. Nearly every shot is spectacularly beautiful, from the sunrise over Earth opening and through the first shots of prehistoric earth, to the monkeys and into space. Nerdgasm.
So, the moment of truth: for the most part, they just tasted fried. The legs were fine; there was pretty much nothing but crunch, the charred experience (science types: is there a measure, a la Scoville units or the Bortle scale, that measures crunch? There should be. I couldn’t find anything; this seems an opportunity for a budding food scientist to make a name for him/herself. You’re welcome. Just mention me in your Nobel speech). The body had a chalky, overcooked liver-y feel that was straight-up nasty. The tarantula came with a pretty nice sweet-sour dipping sauce, but it wasn’t enough.
The rest of the dishes we ordered (which included more standard, chicken-with-eggplant-type fare) weren’t any good either, though. Which begs the question: Is tarantula disgusting, or does Romdeng just have no idea how to prepare tarantula properly?