Spit-Roast Cows Banned For ‘Inciting Violence’February 9, 2012
One of the strangest stories of the week must surely be the government ban on spit-roasting cows in public. Apparently, pen-pushers in Phnom Penh think the sight of calf carcasses being slowly barbecued and then chopped up in full view of squeamish passers-by could incite violence and is bad for the image of Cambodia.
The Council of Ministers signed a directive ordering all ‘koo dut’ restaurants to remove these grisly sights following a meeting by the Supreme Council of the Mohanikaya Buddhist order, which decided they glorify the killing of animals.
“Grilling cows in front of the restaurants is a show of support for violence in a country that believes in the Buddhist religion. It can instil the ideas of a massacre to a child and push them to commit violence in society,” council member Chhoeng Bunchhea told reporters, adding that rotisserie chickens and whole roast ducks were okay because they were “small size” animals.
They passed a request for a ban to ministers, which came into force last month. It was reported as a ban in Phnom Penh. But when I phoned a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Information, he confirmed that it would be rolled out across the country. He said ministers had agreed with the Buddhist order’s concerns that it was against their religion.
“We don’t want to see this kind of thing,” he said. “You can still sell it, but we don’t want it being cooked in public. Restaurants can put it in the kitchen, but not on display.”
Have they been into a Khmer restaurant kitchen? The vast majority are so tiny that if you put a roast cow in there, there wouldn’t be room for the cook. Other officials cited hygiene concerns about cooking in the street, which is ridiculous when you see the state of many indoor kitchens here, and the dozens of busy food stalls perched on every corner.
The only time I got food poisoning after eating spit-roast cow was when I went to the strip of barbecue restaurants on street 13, opposite Wat Ounalom. I was convinced it was nothing to do with the beef – roasting meat and then finishing it off directly over red-hot coals is a good way of killing bacteria, regardless of whether it’s done in public or not. It was far more likely to have been the accompanying tray of raw vegetables that emerged from the grimy dungeon of a kitchen overlooking the toilets.
Surprisingly enough, so far the beef ban’s been widely ignored. But now officials are vowing to step up enforcement. Pen In, Phsar Kandal II commune chief, told the Cambodia Daily she would ask police to remove the spit-roast cows if the restaurants didn’t move them.
“I have (explained to restaurant owners) not to grill cows like this because it looks very bad and especially because it’s unsanitary,” she said.
Journalists in Phnom Penh I heard from today said there was no sign of police action, with restaurants still doing a roaring trade by Phsar Kandal. And up here in Siem Reap, spit-roast cow eateries said they hadn’t even heard of the ban, let alone received the directive.
The owner of one restaurant I go to for my barbecued beef fixes thought I was winding him up to start with, and it took a good couple of minutes for him to believe me.
“It’s crazy,” he said, “People love seeing the cow being cooked.”
As he sweated in the mid-morning sun, filling the animal’s belly with lemon grass, hot basil, and paddy field herbs, and then sewing up the cavity with wire, a group of monks wandered past from nearby Wat Damnak temple. They didn’t cross the road, or clench their nostrils, or drench us in water to remove evil spirits, they glanced at the cow and smiled.
But however much it is against Buddhist sensibilities, I think it’s a shame if the Government does enforce the ban. It would undoubtedly lead to a lot of restaurants closing, and a lot of families being plunged on to the bread line.
Grilled cow, with its tray of crudités, salt, pepper and lime dip, and prahok sauce, is one of the best meals to be had in Cambodia. The government should be showcasing these dishes, and promoting the country’s badly-marketed cuisine, rather than ordering them to be swept off the streets.
And if they really are worried about the sight of these spit-roasts inciting violence, and being a bad image for Cambodia, perhaps they should take a look at the blood-thirsty tourists shelling out $10 a time to throw live chickens into crowded crocodile pens.
Or better still, take a look at the country’s many shooting ranges, where drunken Russians can relive moments from their favourite Arnie films. When last I checked, they’d stopped allowing holidaymakers to fire rocket launchers at live cows at $500 a pop, but they’ll quite happily supply smaller animals for cack-handed tourists to blast at – provided you pay of course.
(Photos by Dom Bailey)