Before I went to Cambodia for my tri-monthly visa run (read: obligatory vacation), I asked a couple of experienced friends what to expect from the food. Their reply was a resounding “meh.” It’s not as good as Vietnamese. It’s not as exciting as Thai. They have good western food, but that’s about it.

With such low expectations, I set out to prove them wrong.

1. Lok Lak

Unfortunately, it took me a little while to discredit my friends’ conclusions about Khmer cuisine. My first meal in Cambodia, a very common dish called lok lak, was nothing to write home about. I am only including it here because it so thoroughly matched my friends’ descriptions. Lok lak consists of chewy little chunks of beef with a nothing-special black pepper sauce, served over bland lettuce with a side salad, plus your choice of French baguette or rice. I was disappointed, but refused to believe that lok lak was representative of all the food in Cambodia. I just had to keep searching.

2. Sour Soup

I finally found what I was looking for under a tent next to Preah Khan, one of the larger temples north of Angkor Wat. I had been riding around the temples on a rented bike, sweating out every drop of water that I drank, when the stifling heat finally burst in a downpour of midday rain. Soaked to the skin but refreshed, I stopped at the nearest temple—Preah Khan—to take refuge among the leaky stone ruins. After I’d explored every nook and cranny of the temple and the rain still hadn’t stopped, I decided to check out the row of tarp-covered restaurants lining the road. Scanning the English menu, I picked something at random—sour soup with chicken. It was among the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Chunks of pineapple, tomato, potato, and perfectly tender chicken floating in a sweet and sour broth flavored with tamarind, lemongrass, and coconut, served alongside a healthy helping of rice. By the time I’d finished, the rain had stopped and I continued on my way.

3. Amok

Cambodia’s national dish is a soft, curry-like stew baked and served in a banana leaf. Amok is traditionally made with fish (due to the massive floodplains of the Tonle Sap Lake, freshwater fish is a Cambodian staple), but it’s usually available with chicken or other meat as well. I tried two versions, fish and chicken, and both were fantastic. Milder and sweeter than Thai curry, the mixture has a fluffy, almost mousse-like texture punctuated with chunks of meat and vegetables. The preparation is apparently quite complicated and intensive. With its beautiful leaf-wrapped presentation, amok really feels like a treat.

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4. Veggie enchilada

Okay, so my friends weren’t totally wrong—Cambodia does have really good western food. After suffering through some highly disappointing “Mexican” meals in Nanjing, I was very excited to join some kids from the hostel and check out Viva, a Mexican restaurant in Siem Reap. As a Vermonter, I’m hardly an expert in authentic Mexican cuisine. All I can say is that my veggie enchilada had plenty of sharp cheese, delicious beans, and came topped with both green and red salsas. The restaurant itself was modern and beautifully furnished, and the waiters were attentive and spoke perfect English. It served to highlight Cambodia’s incredible transformation from a war-torn famine-stricken wasteland to a friendly, cosmopolitan tourist destination, all in the space of just 35 years.

5. Pumpkin juice

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of sipping pumpkin juice and snacking on cauldron cakes while riding the Hogwarts Express. Although I was disappointed that my Cambodian pumpkin juice did not include an invitation to join the Wizarding World, it was nevertheless extremely delicious in a rich, unusual way. Sweetened with coconut milk and served on ice, it was the perfect way to beat the scorching heat of Phnom Penh.

6. Khmer Congee

As a tourist visiting Cambodia for the first time, I never strayed too far off the beaten path. I stayed in foreigner-friendly Siem Reap while visiting the Angkor temples, stayed with an American family in Phnom Penh, ate in restaurants with English menus, and rarely found myself the only westerner in the room. One of the few times I came close to experiencing Khmer authenticity was when a friend from the hostel and I were wandering around Siem Reap looking for breakfast, and stumbled upon a little restaurant packed with locals. Most of them were over the age of forty, and all of them were enjoying rice porridge or noodles with fried dough sticks and coffee—very similar to breakfasts in China, actually, minus the coffee. We sat down across from a middle-aged Cambodian man sipping beef noodles, and ordered the congee (the menu had English, so I suppose even here they were used to tourists). It was far more flavorful than congee in China, packed with ginger and lemongrass. I meant to go back the next day, but I overslept and settled for toast at the place next door to the hostel instead.

7. Tarantula

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I’m saving the best for last, clearly. Yes, they really do eat tarantulas in Cambodia. I first saw them for sale on the streets of Siem Reap, noted the hairiness of their little fried legs, and kept on walking. But on my very last night in Cambodia, the temptation to eat something truly horrifying was just too strong. I was staying with some American family friends who have lived for years in Phnom Penh, and they sensibly suggested that if I wanted to eat a tarantula, I should do so in a respected restaurant establishment rather than on the street. For my last Cambodian dinner, they took me to Romdeng, a training restaurant that helps former street children and marginalized youth build careers in the restaurant industry. It was by far the best service I’ve experienced anywhere in Asia. For appetizers we ordered one plate of spring rolls, and one plate of fried tarantulas. The waiter took our order without a hint of surprise, disgust, or humor. Business as usual. Tarantulas are believed to be a relatively recent addition to Khmer cuisine, introduced perhaps when food was scarce under the Khmer Rouge. Today, the spiders remain a common snack, as well as a highly popular tourist attraction.

The plate arrived with four fried spiders artfully arranged with sliced cucumbers around a centerpiece of black pepper dipping sauce. Despite being deep-fried and covered with spices, they were nevertheless distinctly spider-like. My host Greg, a spider-eating pro, went first, stuffing the whole thing in at once. There’s no use in prolonging the process by biting off one leg at a time, saving the soft, round abdomen for last. I picked up the spider with my fingers, took a deep breath, and popped it in my mouth. The flavor was great—there wasn’t much beyond deep-fried oil and spices—but after the initial crispiness, the texture was a little too chewy for my taste. I was relieved after I swallowed the thing and moved on to a nice, safe spring roll. Now I’ve officially eaten a spider, and I never have to do it again.

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