There’s no doubt I’ve become a better traveler since my first bag of beetles.
When I found myself on the patio of a quaint guesthouse in Siem Reap sitting at a table with a bag full of hundreds of fried black bugs in front of me, I watched the two receptionists and their friends sitting next to me pop the crispy insects into their mouths, smacking their lips and savoring every crunch. I slowly picked one beetle and sat for several minutes tracing it’s outline while watching the locals carefully peel off the wings. When I finally gave in, to my surprise, it was delicious. I only stopped after a woman to my left told me I’d eaten too many. “You’re a real Khmer,” she joked as she poured me another beer and her friends cheered in delight.
I didn’t think twice about trying new foods after that. During my time in Cambodia, I moved on to grilled pregnant forest tarantulas, maggots, stuffed frogs, turtle soup, stewed dog meat, and less exciting things like crickets, spiced gizzards and chicken hearts. Through my adventures in trying everything, here are the six things I learned:
1. Exploring street food is a critical piece of traveling
I travel to explore, to learn, to grow, to have fun, and find something new. For me, food is an essential part of that experience. But sadly, to my dismay, when it came to food, many other foreigners insisted on playing it safe. Often fellow travelers would judge a new food as “gross” before even tasting it. Though I can’t anticipate that everyone will enjoy a wide variety of tastes, I think it’s fair to expect fellow travelers to at least attempt to develop an adventurous palate. By trying local street food, you at least make an effort to somehow engage in a part of a culture travelers sometimes overlook.
2. Food is an art. Treat it that way.
I’ve seen too many travelers treat street food with an unsettling discourtesy. Trying some fried creepy crawler doesn’t warrant screaming, and spitting it out like a child, or throwing a tantrum and yelling at the person behind the food stall. During my time traveling, I’ve watched countless foodstall cooks try to hide their disdain for the blatant disrespect travelers showed when unhappy with new flavors.
Street food is no different from a country’s paintings, sculptures, or music. They are all steeped in history and equally valid parts of a culture. If you visit a museum and you can’t appreciate the display in front of you, you politely move on in search of something better–with street food it’s no different.
3. You never know what a “simple” food might mean to someone else.
While picking through mango covered chilies one afternoon with an old Khmer friend, he told me the story of the fruit’s history in his family. During the Khmer Rouge, his mother was working in the labour camps with his father, and had stopped menstruating due to malnutrition. Upon discovering a hidden mango tree, she began eating them in secret as often as she could. Soon after, she became pregnant. The little nutrition his mother was able to absorb from those mangos allowed her to eventually conceive.
4. Or might mean to a country’s history.
Khmer people always had a diverse diet including a variety of meats, starches, and produce. However, during the Khmer Rouge, consuming insects became increasingly popular when food was scarce and rationed. Learning this made me look at the dish entirely differently. Even if you dislike a dish, the stories behind it are often good enough to be savored.
5. Food shouldn’t have a hierarchy.
6. Food cannot be separated from people.
In the U.S. and most other Western nations, we usually do not see the person who prepares our food. We get our plates, and the server is the medium between customer and cook. With street food, there’s an added layer of intimacy. You see them, and they see you. If you speak the same language, you can tell them that you want more chillies, or less of that sauce. With street food, I not only connect with food, but I’m also reminded that food is connected to human beings.
As a Western traveler, street food allowed me to get into the thick of it–to not only embrace exciting new flavors but also gain insight into the people who brought them to me.