Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Tarantulas!

     Obviously, writing about wacky edibles is the most common type of post on this blog.  I try hard to make sure that the foods/beverages I post about are exotic, disgusting, or hopefully, both.  But, since I post once a week, some are admittedly stronger than others.  I'm very excited about this one, though.  Aside from some folks in Cambodia, Thailand, and limited parts of Africa, Venezuela, and Australia, I'm fairly confident that most people have never chowed down on a tarantula, and would never do so if given the chance.  For good reason.  Along with public speaking, death, enclosed spaces, and snakes, a fear of spiders is incredibly common.  Sometimes to absurd degrees.  From my personal experience, I know a woman (Hi Heather), who's so afraid of them that she won't look at a photograph of a spider in a book.  The huge Shelob from the "The Lord of the Rings" books and movies made for a very effective monster.  There's something about our eight-legged friends that put off a great many people.
     Let's move to tarantulas in general.  First off, their name comes from the Southern Italian town of Taranto.  People often refer to any large, hairy spider as a tarantula, but clearly scientists are more discriminating.  Despite their large size (the biggest one, the Goliath or Bird Eating Spider can have a leg span of 11 inches (28 cm.)), tarantulas are surprisingly harmless.  Their bite, it's true, can be painful, but it's not deadly to humans.  Like with some other animal bites/stings, the only danger is an allergic reaction, not the venom itself.  (Although the bite from an African species can cause hallucinations, so there's that.)  New World tarantulas have another, nasty defense, though.  They have what's called urticating hairs.  These are sharp, sometimes barbed hairs which cause irritation upon contact.  Some species even are able to kick off or throw the hairs at an enemy.  But, as with the bite, while these hairs are painful and annoying, they're not deadly (although extreme care should be taken if they get into the eyes).  Tarantulas live throughout most of the world.  Essentially, if you want to avoid them, your only options are Canada, the Northern U.S., most of Europe, and the colder parts of Asia.  (Oh, and Antarctica, of course.)
     As I mentioned in my recent post about reindeer meat (June 15, 2016), I got my tarantula from by typing in "exotic meats" in the search bar.  The company was called Thailand Unique, out of the named country.  This was the same outfit (through ThinkGeek) that supplied my my various insect posts in 2014 (February 13, April 3, May 22, and June 29), about crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and giant waterbugs.  The species I received was a Thai zebra tarantula.  This species is native to its name country, Myanmar, and Cambodia.  The zebra tarantula (scientific name: Haplopelma albostriatum) gets its name from the white stripes on its body and running down its legs.  It's also known as the edible spider.  It's considered a somewhat shy spider, as it spends most of its time in its underground lair.  It will attack aggressively if provoked, however.  Since it's an Old World tarantula it doesn't have urticating hairs.  Fried up they're a street vendor food in Cambodia.
     The can that arrived was small, about 2.5 inches in diameter (6.5 cm.).  But, when I opened it up the spider inside seemed a bit larger than I expected.  (Photos taken by Andrew--thanks.)

(You probably can't make it out, but in the last photo I'm chewing on a tarantula leg.)
      I read that all the spider's parts were edible--the legs, the abdomen ("butt" end), and the cephalothorax (the main part of the body, encompassing the fused head, and where the legs connected), so I dutifully consumed every one.  Being in a hotel, I didn't have any way to cook/prepare it, so I just picked the parts up and ate them, some with condiments on them.  The experience was very disappointing.  The legs were dry, hollow, and fairly tasteless.  The abdomen and cephalothorax were more solid, and somewhat better than the legs, but still pretty bad.  Ketchup, mustard, and Taco Bell's "Hot" sauce all didn't improve the taste to any noticeable degree.  There was kind of an unpleasant aftertaste, too.  It's possible that this aftertaste was largely psychological, but it was still apparent.  Overall then, I didn't like tarantula at all.  It was also embarrassingly expensive, costing over $20 for my small can.  Now it's true that my specimen was dried, cooked, and canned.  I'm sure that fresh tarantula tastes better.  Witness the dramatic difference in flavor from canned tuna and fresh tuna sushi, for example.  However, it appears unlikely that I'll ever be in one of the rare places that serve fresh tarantula.  But if I am, I will give it another go, albeit reluctantly.
     To end this post on a morbid note (I do write horror, after all), I'd like to talk about one of the tarantula's biggest enemies, the tarantula wasp.  This wasp finds a tarantula, and then stings it.  (Incidentally the tarantula wasp's sting is rated the 2nd worst in the world, after South America's bullet ant, according the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.)  The sting paralyzes the tarantula, but doesn't kill it.  The wasp then lays an egg on/next to the stilled spider.  The larva that emerges promptly burrows into the tarantula, eating it from the inside.  To keep its food fresh, the larva avoids the tarantula's vital organs until it's ready to pupate and become an adult.  Can you imagine the horror?  And this would be made even more extreme if the tarantula can still feel pain, and is aware of what's going on (I couldn't discover if either of these is true).  Being consumed from the inside, slowly--that's got to be among the very worst ways to go.  If tarantulas in this situation can pray, I'm sure they're begging their spider deity(s) to let the wasp larva accidentally eat a vital organ, and have sweet death finally bring them relief.

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