Over drinks after work, I broached the opening of The Bug Café. At a table of expatriates, the topic of bug eating doesn’t cause the same surprised or horrified reactions I would expect at home in New England.
“If you want to eat bugs, go get ‘em off the street like everyone else,” says the Manc. “I ain’t paying five quid to eat a burger filled with bugs when I can get a perfectly decent butter burger filled with lovely beef for less.” On the other end of the spectrum, our resident health guru touted the health benefits of protein-hardy cricket flour as a sustainable alternative to gluten flour. Still, I had a hard time finding a friend to join me for dinner; not because bugs are gross, but because everyone thought they’d already done the bug thing.
The Bug Café is new and different, though. They’ve made a real effort to present the insects in a more familiar – and arguably more appealing – way. Rather than simply drowning, oiling, then frying them with salt, the French owners have created a menu with samosas, spring rolls, and even cheesecake. They just sneak bugs in each dish discreetly.
That was the worst part of it for me – the sneaking. But the amount of sneak-ery ranges from dish to dish. Some dishes are blatantly just cooked bugs, and some dishes can be made without the creepy-crawly component. The three of us ordered a round of stiff drinks, and the Discovery Platter advertised for four to five people. We got ant-stuffed spring rolls, grasshopper and tarantula skewers, Mediterranean Feuilletés with ants, silk worm cupcakes, a tarantula donut, a tarantula samosa, a mixed insect wok, and a scorpion salad.
The wok-fried mixed bug dish was exactly what we expected. The grasshopper skewers were great – Davy, one of the owners, told me they remove the icky bits like legs and stingers so the bugs are at their most edible. The stuff that tested our limits was the seemingly harmless baked goods that revealed mangled bug body parts only after the first bite. One pastry looked like a cinnamon bun, but rather than a gooey cinnamon and sugar filling, you get an army of ants. And it thoroughly creeped us out.
Why did the baked goods bug us when we had whole tarantulas rolling around on our plates? Science. Evolution has given humans a natural and healthy aversion to insects. The author of The Infested Mind corroborates:
Insects had never bothered me one at a time or in small numbers. It was the overwhelming scale that had been so disturbing. But again, by sort of systematically processing that experience, its origins in me, and its origins in the deeper human psyche, I can find a sort of a dark fascination with the enormity of these natural phenomena.
My discomfort with the baked goods was thought provoking. Conquering the ant-infested pastry was satisfying. Discovering that the scorpions adorning the Green Papaya Salad were delicious was priceless.
Who would’ve thought the three of us would be fighting over who got to eat the last scorpion? We left some (most) of our Mixed Bug Wok with Mediterranean seasoning. We left one of our Grasshopper skewers. None of us were even remotely interested in the Tarantula Donut once we cut it in half to see the inside. But those scorpions were our saving grace. Joana even called the waitress over to ask if they were stuffed with peanuts. No, the waitress told us, they just taste that good after being marinated and grilled. Just don’t eat the claws.
Or the water bugs, apparently. The Bug Café was fresh out of water bugs the night we stopped by, but even Davy, one of the owners, said they were his least favorite dish on their fairly extensive menu. “It is like trying to chew plastic,” he said laughing.
I felt badly for the guests sitting outside with us because there was a lot of squealing coming from our table, and the bartender knows how to make a strong drink, so I’m sure the squeals got louder as the night wore on. But the vibe was super jovial all around, and I think that’s because we felt a sense of camaraderie with the other patrons – like we were all in it together.
Bottom line: I had a fantastic evening. The staff are sweet, attentive and well taken care of, which is really important to me and has been the reason I refuse to return to certain establishments in Siem Reap. Davy was very welcoming and gave us a great, honest rundown of the menu. Yes, you can buy fried spiders off the street for ten cents, but The Bug Café is an incomparable experience, and well worth a visit. This is not street food. There is something for the squeamish and something for the adventurous. I won’t be making Mixed Insect Woks a part of my everyday diet, but if anyone wants company, I would very happily tag along.