By Laura Kraft
This post is the fifth in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who is chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See earlier posts from the series.
Imagine a crispy, fried spring roll. It has that characteristic crunch on the outside, a nice, firm salad inside with something else, something a little nutty, and then—pop!—a quick note of acidity that brings the flavors together. It’s delicious. This is not my first time eating red ants, or weaver ants, in Cambodia, but it is by far one of the best uses of the brief acidic explosion one gets upon eating them.
I am at Bugs Cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a popular restaurant near the night market. I am sitting with the co-owner outside right as the restaurant opens for the evening, and immediately a family with three children in primary school enters. Then another family with children in their teens. Then a few women in their thirties come in together. The success of this restaurant is immediately clear, and I dig into the interview to find out more about what makes this restaurant touting entomophagy so popular that I had been receiving tips to go eat there from the time I entered Asia in early November.
Bugs Cafe was born when co-owner Marjolaine Blouzard was working at a nearby hotel in Siem Reap. The hotel patrons kept asking her for restaurant suggestions where they could try eating insects, popular in Cambodian cuisine. At the time, there were no restaurants catering to this kind of need. (Cambodians tend to cook and eat insects at home instead of eating them at restaurants.) While the night market has a selection of vendors selling deep fried insects, the tourists wanted something more traditional: insects in a meal, not as a greasy snack on the roadside.
Marjolaine joined forces with her cousin David Blouzard, and they set off around Cambodia, looking for suppliers and tastes that they would want to incorporate into their restaurant. Marjolaine and David found a Khmer chef, Seiha Soeun, who was interested in cooking for the restaurant, and Bugs Cafe was opened in July of 2014.
The flavors on the menu reflect the different nationalities of the co-owners (French) and the chef (Cambodian). You can order Cambodian spring rolls stuffed with ants, like I did, or try them in a Mediterranean Feuillete (a flaky pastry puff roll). This gives customers the chance to try insects in a way that is familiar and Western if they so desire or to try for more traditional Khmer flavors.
David is proud of his Bug Mac, which took work to get the ratios just right. This is a bug-patty that has the same consistency of a hamburger. His favorite item on the menu, though, is the deep-fried tarantulas. As I trail him when he introduces his guests to their meals, he assures them the tarantulas taste like soft shell crab. His top suggestion to tables of hesitant backpackers is the discovery platter, which features a variety of different insect tapas for groups to sample.
I sit down with a group of travelers to ask them what they think. It is a group of mixed nationalities, from the United States, Canada, and France. For every person in the group, it is their first time trying insects. One member says she still isn’t ready to try yet, while her friends cut a fried tarantula thorax in half and record video while they eat. Down the table, one of the travelers, Oscar, is delicately cutting legs off another tarantula and popping them into his mouth, and he tells me that eating insects is, “kinda crazy. I don’t feel the taste, mostly the texture.”
At Bugs Cafe, the insects and non-insect arthropods (including tarantulas and scorpions) are sourced from farmers in the countryside, who catch the arthropods themselves in their rice fields or in the forests surrounding where they live. These are insects they themselves eat at home. When I ask about the famous ant eggs I keep hearing about but haven’t been able to get my hands on, co-owner David laughs and says that he also has never seen them at the market, mostly because he believes they are such a delicacy that farmers do not sell them but rather eat them themselves.
Because of the seasonality of insects, at some times the restaurant cannot serve certain bugs. I am disappointed to find that grasshopper season has just ended, as I had eaten some exceptional grasshoppers in Laos a few weeks prior and wanted to try them again in Cambodia.
While David and I are talking, a Cambodian woman comes up with a tote bag full of tourist maps, which feature Bugs Cafe on them. Besides some small side advertising, like the map and an advertisement in a local flyer, Bugs Cafe is predominantly marketed online through reviews. When I sit down to talk to a table of customers, a woman doubtfully eyeballing her tarantula thorax informs me they came after seeing the restaurant on TripAdvisor.
David and I come back around to the main question: How did this restaurant become so popular? As David points out, the restaurant feels familiar in that it has Western décor and appears modern. As we are seated outside, he also jumps up frequently to chat with prospective clients who are flipping through the menu set up on a podium outside. He has a practiced spiel that is friendly and informative but not overbearing, which presumably also helps customers feel welcome. I chat with an expat named Thomas from France who comes by the restaurant frequently, and he corroborates: “[Bugs Cafe] makes more complete food than street food. … [It] has a good environment.” As we look around the packed restaurant, it is pretty clear that entomophagy is gaining ground in Cambodia, one ant spring roll at a time.
Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program in the fall of 2017.
(Photos by Laura Kraft)