Trade was brisk at Chbar Ampov Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s busy capital city. Beneath colourful layers of tarpaulin and scraps of corrugated iron, traders swatted flies while flinging dragon fruit, lychees and rambutans into dishes for weighing. The mostly female vendors wore patterned pyjamas and floppy hats – cheap clothes that offered protection from the blazing sun. Men lined the periphery on their motorbikes taxis, squatting over dismembered engine parts or stacking planks of wood. Smells of fresh meat, exhaust fumes and incense wafted through the air.
It was 9 am and my friend Jeremiah and I were at the market entrance, watching the activity. It was April – the hot season – when breakfast seemed seasoned with sweat. Since the heat puts most travellers off visiting Phnom Penh this time of year, we were the only ones waiting for Kimley, our Backstreet Academy tour guide. The company connects travellers with artisan activities throughout South East Asia, including a knife-making workshop in Siem Reap and fishing on the Mekong. Jeremiah and I were going to visit a family of insect traders, and learn how to cook the critters.
Eating insects in Southeast Asia, of course, is nothing new. But in a country where insects were sometimes referred to as “hunger food” during the famine created by the late 1970s Khmer Rouge regime – the bugs today are seen as a cheap and plentiful source of protein, amino acids and micronutrients, especially for the for the 79% of Cambodian children that suffer some form of malnourishment. In fact, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization now uses the pleasingly alliterative epithet, “six-legged livestock”.
Kimley arrived on a small, sleek moped. He was earnest young man with glasses; slim as his ride. We followed him on our motorbikes, passing dusty buildings with candy-coloured roofs and needling through the crowded streets stitched to the banks of the Bassac, one of three rivers that meet at the low-rise Cambodian capital.
Driving slowly to avoid the children and chickens, we turned down an alley that led towards the riverbank. Ahead of us was a collection of single-storey, single-room dwellings. The outer walls of the buildings were decorated with red tiles and the security bars were painted yellow. Several families worked outside in the shade of neighbouring buildings. Women crushed garlic and chopped bales of spring onions; toddlers ran in and out of doorways. Large bowls and baskets full of insects and frogs were strewn around.
Vannet Sokna, a slight man in a checked shirt whose 30-year-old-face was aged with hard living, emerged from one of the houses. He was to be our host. We sat down in the traditional way, cross-legged on a raised wooden platform.
“I used to work in Korea as a labourer,” he told us, Kimley translating. “But I missed my family, so I returned to Cambodia and now I sell insects and frogs wholesale and as snacks.”
He ran his hand through a basket of beetles that glittered like seaside pebbles. Behind us a woman flicked crushed garlic into a bowl of small, dead frogs. As she mixed them, they made a slurpy squishy sound.
“Wild crickets are most popular,” Sokna said. “They sell for $15/kg raw and $50/kg cooked.” He snapped one like a pistachio and pointed to its foam-textured inside. “These are the eggs – extra delicious.”
Sokna gets his beetles and crickets from a supplier in Takeo province, south of Phnom Penh. He described how the insects are caught by shining a blue fluorescent light through a sheet of plastic hung from a bamboo frame. The insects fly towards the light, hit the plastic and drop into a tub of water below. Ice is then poured over the bounty, finishing off any insects that are still alive while keeping them fresh and ready to sell.
Slants of sunlight flashed from the steel counter of Sokna’s portable kitchen, which was attached, sidecar-style, to a skeletal motorbike. At one end of the counter was a wok-sized indent with a gas ring; the canister was stashed below. Sokna flicked a cigarette lighter and angled the flame gingerly towards the metal ring, swiftly retracting his arm as it lit with a whoosh.
He placed a wok, half-full of glistening vegetable oil, on the heat. Bowls of crickets – from giant wild to smaller farmed – were already laid out. There were also bowls of silkworm pupae and beetles that had been pre-cooked and canned in the countryside.
“We don’t buy silkworm and beetles raw,” explained Sokna. “Cans are better because they are easy to prepare and last longer.” These were for the tasting session later.
He then produced small plastic sacks of seasoning which were stashed inside the portable kitchen and laid them next to the bowls of brown, leg-dangling crickets. I could see flour, salt, sugar and something labelled Umami Seasoning that smelled like spicy sawdust.
“Watch me,” Sokna said, adding one tablespoon of salt, two of sugar and half of the umami, followed by a dash of water. Pushing a hand deep into the mushy melange, he dumped in some flour and continued to mix. Presumably the idea was to coat the critters in something resembling batter, but the flour merely clumped in small, white globules.
The crickets hit the scalding oil, making a sound like a rainstorm. The wok became a mass of white, burning bubbles. After five minutes Sokna scooped some up using a wire skimmer and tossed them. They were crispy enough to bounce and skim around the metal wire. None of the flour remained on the crickets; it had merely formed a ring of hard, pus-coloured batter around the wok. Half the oil was gone, absorbed into the insects. Sokna nodded: they were ready.
Jeremiah repeated the method, followed by me. It was not so much a cookery lesson as a chance to cover crickets in questionable seasoning and fry them in thick, cheap oil in a Phnom Penh back alley. But we weren’t disappointed. In Cambodia, you don’t go into these situation expecting extra virgin olive oil and Himalayan rock salt.
I certainly wasn’t feeling hungry as I looked at the freshly fried bugs bundled in a bowl. Jeremiah grinned and popped one in his mouth, posing with it like a cigarette before chowing down. He nodded and shrugged. Encouraged by his nonchalant reaction I started munching, splintering the crisp shell with my teeth and chewing on the mushiness inside. It tasted pleasant, like a cardboard box that had once contained fried chicken. The silkworms were palatable too – like meaty sweetcorn. And there we were, sweating, feasting on grubs and six-legged hoppers on the banks of the Bassac. Sokna offered us a party bag of beetles, crickets and silkworms. We left on our motorcycles with bags of bugs swinging from the handlebars.
A few weeks later I was standing on the ferry that links Phnom Penh with Koh Dach island in the Mekong – another of the three rivers that meet at Phnom Penh. Slightly peckish, I spied a woman doling out bags of crickets to other passengers on the crowded boat. I bought a bag and munched them while watching the river and pollution-frosted sky. I guess I’m an entomophagian now.