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June 02, 2012

TARANTULAS AND SNAKE WHISKY – THE DINING’S FINE


David Ellis

TARANTULAS, crickets and a swig of snake whisky are now on the menu for the more culinary-adventurous during eight-day Mekong River cruises between Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia's Siem Reap.

But daring as they may appear, such "delicacies" are not actually part of the cuisine aboard the river ships AmaLotus and La Marguerite of Australia's APT Touring – they're there for the more-strong of heart and stomach during shore excursions led by Vietnamese and Cambodian guides. 

Crickets, guests soon learn, are in fact a pretty staple local food item in the region because of their high protein content. Attracted by battery-powered fluorescent lights at night amongst the rice fields, the unwary little fellas fly into plastic sheets and then drop into troughs of water where they're collected for frying in tasty sauces at local markets, the sauces over-riding any "natural" flavour that may exist inside the now-crispy carcasses.

And those brave enough to try, also find that stir-fried tarantulas taste and crunch much the same as those crickets… with the truly brave also being offered a live one in the hand or on their shirt – with the assurance that these fearsome-looking crawly critters have had their venom-carrying fangs removed.

And to prove just how safe and tasty they are, the guides are the first to eat a cooked one. Whole.  And while some passengers may gingerly try the legs, with a few prepared to bite into the body, most opt instead for a photograph of those few game enough to bite into or to wear a tarantula.

Afterwards, to wash all this down, there's then a swig of that Snake Whisky, which is produced by infusing whole snakes, usually cobras, in rice whisky. It's good for virility, the guides assure APT's passengers, as well as rheumatism and arthritis.

The whisky comes from a small family-run village rice processing mill near a floating wholesalers' market where trading's not on shore, but from boat to boat. As well as the whisky, the busy little plant also produces rice paper sheets (during the cruise, passengers actually get an on-board lesson in making rice paper rolls), popped rice that's like pop-corn, and a coconut-based candy.

Back aboard ship, Head Chef Tam on the 46-cabin La Marguerite presents more widely-accepted Vietnamese or Cambodian-influenced dishes at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as western dishes for travellers less-inclined to Asian food. (He's even got a jar of Vegemite hidden away for Australian and New Zealand passengers.) 

APT says that experiencing local foods is an integral element of the travel experience, and with Vietnam so-renowned for its fresh and healthy offerings, dining is an important part of these river ship holidays – and contribute to La Marguerite and  AmaLotus claiming "floating 4-5 star hotel status."

Breakfasts can range from traditional local rice porridge and pho (a beef or chicken noodle soup with basil, lime and bean sprouts,) to western cereals, eggs-anyway, bacon, sausages, fish, French toast, cured meats, cheeses, fruits, breads and pastries (that reflect Vietnam's French heritage,) juices, tea and coffee.

At lunch there's a choice again of Asian or Western with maybe various soups (clear pork, winter melon, potato cream, bouillabaisse, French onion or green papaya with pork,) possibly curries, sweet and sour fish, stuffed squid with minced pork, Canton fried rice, grilled pork with sweet chilli sauce, or salads and fruits.

And at night it might be those soups again, BBQ'd river tiger prawns served with mixed salad, sticky rice and peanut sauce, or stewed pork with plum sugar, Western-style meats or Asian and Western vegetables…

Tea, coffee, soft drinks, juices, local beers and local spirits are available any time from the open bars, while local wines are served with meals as part of the all-inclusive cruise price; imported wines cost from US$22 a bottle.

The 12-day Ho Chi Minh, Mekong and Angkor package is priced from $4195 per person twin share, which includes seven nights cruising and two hotel nights in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, 29 meals, airport transfers, small group guided excursions to key sites, port charges, cruise tipping and Freedom of Choice Touring and Dining in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap.

For details phone 1300 229 804, visit www.aptouring.com.au or see travel agents.

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] CRUISING into soft adventure – La Marguerite

[] CRUISING into soft adventure – La Marguerite (vertical)

[] FANGS for the memory: Tasmanian Tim Johnson (of Kempton) tries a deep fried Tarantula

[] TASTY offerings being prepared by La Marguerite's Head Chef Tam

 

(Images: APT Touring)



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