Not for the squeamish: Eating and using insects
Insects are important to Cambodians in many ways and not just for the usual ecological reasons. Where there are insects in abundance, these people have developed many ways to use them. In a weeklong trip to the Cambodian countryside, I noticed many of these uses myself.
Take insects as food for instance. Although the Khmer people might have enjoyed insect dishes before the Pol Pot reign, during this stressful time when other food sources were limited, many more people discovered the benefits of eating insects. In some regions of Cambodia this custom continues to this day.
When my brother Ken, his wife Mary and I were driven in a hired car from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we passed through insect-eating territories. I knew this route from previous travels and made sure that our driver stopped at a particular rest area along the way, the “Spider Market” so they could see this for themselves.
This market specialized in fried and salted insects of many varieties, ranging from tarantulas, to crickets, and on through the insect families, even including some that looked too much like cockroaches for my taste. In fact, none of the piles of insects appealed to any of us. I’ve eaten them on former trips and grossed out my friends with photos but this time, “been there, done that.” Instead, I bought a few stalks of lotus fruits and occupied myself during the rest of the drive extracting the edible seeds, peeling them and eating them like pistachio nuts.
We had many other chances to eat insects this trip, but always found something more to our taste. The restaurants in Siem Reap served delicious fish, chicken and shrimp curries and vegetable and fruit salads, but most menus also included such delicacies as red ant soup and silkworm curry. Again, we passed.
The main use for silkworms, of course, is not as food, but as the basis of the silk industry. Silk moths are raised along with groves of mulberry plants, their sole food source, and processed through a number of stages into lovely silk garments and products. We visited one silk farm outside Siem Reap and were toured through the entire process beginning with mating silk moths (the males live only one day), through bamboo trays of mulberry leaves and eggs, and more trays with larger and larger caterpillars on more mulberry leaves, finally settling into chrysalises in cocoons on yet another tray. When the cocoons turn yellow the silk is ready to be harvested. The cocoons are dried in the sun to kill the moth inside, which would otherwise destroy the silk in its natural effort to break out of the cocoon.
Large airy rooms on the premises provided working space for dozens of women who each specialized in a part of the production process, from boiling and wrapping the silk on skeins, dyeing the fibers with natural materials, weaving intricate patterns in large pieces of cloth, and turning this material into beautiful products available in the attached retail store. The silk farm we visited was run by the nonprofit Angkor Handicraft Association, and all workers have health care plans, get good wages and even a cut in the entire proceeds of the association, a model in sustainable development in the region.
Later we visited another sustainable development initiative using insects, the Angkor Butterfly Center. We paid our admission and toured the large netted enclosure filled with many types of flowering plants and trees, some native and some internationally common ornamentals like zinnias that I grow in my own garden at home. Adult butterflies are not particular about their nectar sources. But when it comes to laying eggs, each species requires a particular species of host plant, which the center raises in separate enclosures. Most of the adult butterflies we saw flitting around from flower to flower, however, actually came from nearby villages. Over the years, many villagers have been trained in locating butterfly eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises on wild plants and in butterfly propagation. These people are paid a good price for any that they bring to the Butterfly Center, and in some cases this activity has become as important as making sugar cane syrup, weaving baskets and other crafts for their major family-supporting income.
Attempts to grow silkworms in the U.S. have failed over the years, but we too now have butterfly centers, like one in Melrose, Fla., where you can see butterflies raised from eggs to adults. And soon enough, no doubt, much of the protein added to our common processed foods will come from pulverized insects, most likely called some highfalutin scientific name that disguises its true source. But something tells me we are far away from ever seeing a complete roasted, salted cockroach on our own plates. Cambodia reigns in this regard, and it’s all theirs!