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Feature:

Spiderwomen serve up Cambodia's creepy caviar

They're black, hairy, have eight legs and are delicious when fried with garlic and butter. Originally eaten out of necessity, the burrowing beasts have become a gastronomic landmark of the Skuon region.

First unearthed by starving Cambodians in the dark days of the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" rule, Skuon's spiders have transformed from the vital sustenance of desperate refugees into a choice national delicacy.

Black, hairy, and packing vicious, venom-soaked fangs, the burrowing arachnids common to the jungle around this bustling market town do not appear at first sight to be the caviar of Cambodia.

But for many residents of Skuon, the "a-ping" - as the breed of palm-sized tarantula is known in Khmer - are a source of fame and fortune in an otherwise impoverished farming region in the east of the war-ravaged southeast Asian nation.

"On a good day, I can sell between 100 and 200 spiders," said Tum Neang, a 28-year-old spider-seller who supports her entire family by hawking the creepy-crawlies, deep fried in garlic and salt, to the people who flock to Skuon for a juicy morsel.

At around 300 riel (eight US cents) a spider, the eight-legged snack industry provides a tidy income in a country where around one third of people live below a poverty line of $1 per day.

The dish's genesis is also a poignant reminder of Cambodia's bloody past, particularly under the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal four years in power from 1975-1979 left an estimated 1.7 million people dead, many through torture and execution.

Turning back the clock hundreds of years, Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist guerrillas emptied Cambodia's vibrant cities and destroyed businesses and universities in a bid create a totally agrarian, peasant society.

For the millions forced at gunpoint into the fields, grubs and insects such as spiders, crickets, wasps and "konteh long" - the giant water beetles found in lakes near the Vietnamese border - were what kept them alive.

"When people fled into the jungle to get away from Pol Pot's troops, they found these spiders and had to eat them because they were so hungry," said Sim Yong, a 40-year-old mother of five.

"Then they discovered they were so delicious," she said, proffering a plate piled high with hundreds of the greasy fried arachnids.

"And our spiders are by far the best in Cambodia."


It's the taste

For Roeun Sarin, a 35-year-old minibus taxi passenger on his way to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, the Skuon spider is definitely a matter of taste, not history.

"I cannot go through Skuon without having a few spiders, I love them so much," he said, as yet another crispy tarantula disappeared into his mouth.

"They taste a bit like crickets, only much better," he added.

"They taste a bit like crickets, only much better..."
Meanwhile, in the service station in the centre of town, the ebb and flow of Skuon life continues as more minibuses full of spider-starved Phnom Penh residents pull up, to be besieged by a cluster of excited spider-sellers.

Travellers from the capital, 60 km (38 miles) to the southwest, often buy dozens of the spiders at a time, fresh from the soil around Skuon, rather than wait for what might be inferior produce in the Phnom Penh markets.

Conservationists and vegetarians might blanche at the relentless pursuit of so many spiders for the sake of a snack, but locals are confident the arachnid population will hold up.

Indeed, the only time a crisis threatened was around the Millennium when an extra-large number of spider-eaters passed through Skuon on their way to celebrate the New Year at Angkor, the stunning 1000-year-old temple complex in the northwest.


Say goodbye to backache

According to aficionado Tum Neang, the best spider is one plucked straight from its burrow and pan fried with lashings of garlic and salt over a traditional wood fire until its skin goes a deep red-brown colour.

Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, it should then be served piping hot.

But the spider's remarkable popularity does not stop with its taste.

Like many of her fellow Cambodians, Chor Rin, a 40-year-old market stall trader, swears by its medicinal properties - especially when mushed up in a rice wine cocktail.

"It's particularly good for back ache and children with breathing problems," she said, dipping a glass into a jar of murky brown liquid, at the bottom of which sits a rotting mass of hairy black legs and bloated spider bellies.

"People could not afford medicine under the Khmer Rouge so they had to use traditional medicines.

"They drank it and it made them feel stronger.

"With the wine, it's very important they still have their fangs or the medicine loses its power," she said.

"With the wine, it's very important they still have their fangs..."

For truckers making the long trip up to Cambodia's northern reaches, a bracing slug of the liquor is an obligatory tonic, and a litre of top grade spider wine can fetch as much as $2, a huge sum in local terms.

Prices of fried spiders in Phnom Penh are also on the rise as supply struggles to keep pace with demand - although it looks as though it will be some time before non-Cambodians cotton on.

"They are becoming more and more popular, but I don't think there's much demand from Europeans yet," said spider-trader Chea Khan.




Mmmmm... spiders

Related links:

Skuon: facts and figures

The Tarantula's Burrow


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