One of the craziest foods I’ve ever eaten was a tarantula. It happened while I was a reckless youth drifting through Cambodia, lured by the promise of excitement.
Little did I guess that excitement would come in the form of these poisonous eight-legged creatures, which were found by the truckfuls in Skuon, a tiny, dusty nowhere town 75km from Phnom Penh and Cambodia’s spider central.
All around me women were hauling baskets of tarantulas which were deep fried in garlic and salt and peddled as an everyday snack.
Feeling particularly plucky that day, I picked the juiciest-looking arachnid from a passing vendor, who then picked it up with her bare hands and dropped it in a plastic bag. I felt my confidence wavering as I stared at the singed spider sitting on my lap. My boyfriend was egging me on however, and I soon found myself chomping on the black and hairless leg of a tarantula.
It tasted a little like overseasoned soft-shell crab. As for the body, my boyfriend said it was gooey and fleshy all at once.
Now, we are venturing into unfamiliar territory with the second phase of the Star2 Monthly Challenge: #Squealmeal. Surely, when it comes to global cuisines, nothing beats a tarantula, right? With that thought in mind, I tried fish sperm for the first time.
Available as a seasonal delicacy at Hanare Restaurant at The Intermark in Kuala Lumpur, shirako – as fishy sperm sacs are known throughout Japan – is harvested from a variety of aquatic life like cod, fugu and snapper and made-to-order during winter months (November to January).
There are several ways to prepare shirako, but Mr Yanomoto Akira, head chef of Hanare, said the best ones are always served spanking raw, straight from the loins of the cod.
My shirako arrived – a pile of fresh, spiralling whitish mass laced with pink veins – on a bed of ice and with a side of vinegar. Terrible first impressions aside, it was slippery and heavy between the chopsticks (yuck), and velvety and creamy on the tongue (yum). Not bad. Not bad at all.
Next up: the stinky tofu. I’ve accidentally consumed it before in Taiwan – how that could happen, one could only guess – and could not proceed further than a single bite. It has made me a lot more determined this time around, so I bought some from Chew Chew Chow Tofu, an actual shop specialising in stinky tofu in Kepong Baru. The owner of Chew Chew, Madam Chew says she makes smelly tofu by soaking fresh white blocks of tofu in a brine of fermented vegetables and then deep frying them.
If anyone thinks durians or blue cheese smell bad, they’ve obviously never encountered chow tofu before (or maybe they have, but mistook it for a dead animal). These things are nasty. And they’re still nasty, even when accompanied by generous slices of ginger and huge dollops of chilli sauce. There was no rich umami flavour, no beautiful flavours or textures waiting to be discovered beyond the smell. The stench was so all encompassing and unrelenting it was difficult to chew without gagging, crying or screaming for mercy.
Call me a wuss, but I did my taste buds a favour by giving up a second time. The smell – of tofu and defeat – lingered in my mouth for what seemed like eternity after that.
Who would’ve thought these seemingly harmless-looking chunks of soy milk would turn out to be my biggest nemesis?
Hanare is at The Intermark, 348 Jalan Tun Razak, KL; Chew Chew Chow Tofu is at 17, Jalan Ambong 2, Kepong Baru, KL