Provincial Protein – A Guide to Subsistence Dining 2/2August 2, 2014
Pedro Milladino continues to munch his way through myriad varieties of rustic Khmer nosh in the second part of this series
It’s a well established fact that Asians eat dog, but then again so do some Swiss. Without dwelling too much on the ethics, choice Vietnamese specialty dining establishments and even some upmarket Korean restaurants openly tout mutt on the menu. Like it or lump it, but it’s going nowhere and those who feel strongly on the taboo topic may have their opinions changed by a never ending barrage of sleepless nighttime howling, yapping and other ‘kikilu’ noises which go on from dusk till dawn.
Things always taste better in the countryside don’t they? Not always. Some may remember the unfortunate case of the dog in Siem Reap story, bludgeoned to death in front of my eyes. That wasn’t the tenderest of main courses I’ve been served, but was prime Aberdeen Angus steak compared to what was dished out in Kampong Shitesville recently.
Our mate Bong Lim is a decent enough chap, although mostly pissed out of his face by 8am and if given a night’s notice, will come and help out with building work, maintenance and butchery skills. Best of all, he’s happy to be paid in Riel, wine, beer and diseased poultry.
I was informed Bong Lim had killed a dog and I could go and drink wine at his place. Outside his shack sat some local ‘gangsters’ (unemployed youths with tattoos and daft hairstyles rather than Al Capone or Ronnie Kray) supping palm wine and juice, waiting for a free dinner.
For an old drunk, the seeds of Lim’s loin have been fruitful, and behind a line of gawking kids, his wife and eldest daughter were stirring a pot. Sneaking a peak, I saw a bubbling curry and a dog skull grinning with empty eye sockets. Thinking it prudent not to ask questions, I waited and shared a glass of bitter palm wine from the communal cup and turned my thoughts to hepatitis and herpes.
The curry was soon ready, and I took a piece of gristle and tried to chew, spat it out discreetly and tried another. Words cannot explain how foul both flavor and texture were (although the sauce wasn’t bad). There was a bit of laughter, before I was told the dog was ‘dop pbee chnam’. 12 year old mutt, and my thoughts turned to other, more mysterious diseases. I felt a twinge of sympathy for poor Lim (and a little for his faithful companion of over a decade), as the village boys laughed and took the piss ‘Dop bpee!’ Unlike the others, I barely touched my helping and waved away offers of seconds.
Imagine the excitement of having a small bee’s nest in the garden. You and I may think about the sweet wild honey found inside. Instead of letting this modest hive grow in size a little, letting the insects do all of the work, it was smashed down by the boys and about a teaspoon of nectar was produced. The rest of it, the not at all sweet comb, along with lava and small bees was fried in some sort of sour concoction which tasted very nasty indeed, especially if expecting something with more natural sugariness.
Whenever it rains in the evening, out race the kids with torches and a trap box to capture the right sort of amphibious life. Some are the size you’d see in various deep fried death throes, others are much bigger. Obviously as an ignorant westerner I can’t tell 1 gourmet frog from a poisonous toad “No can eat this!’, so it’s a job left to the experts. Skinned alive and flash fried in a salt and MSG marinade, they taste like chicken, strangely the ever scavenging dogs won’t touch the bones.
Snakes and other reptiles
From the innocuous little garter snake to poisonous cobras and giant constrictors, snakes bring out only one reaction in Cambodia “Kill, kill kill!”. Women, who, with the exception of the old ladies whacking out fish at the market, never dispatch an animal themselves- cutting, plucking and gutting are normally left to the men folk. If a snake comes slithering in, everybody grabs the nearest object and goes into a whacking frenzy until the hapless reptile is quite dead. Then instinct #2 comes into play – the can I eat it conundrum. Bigger snakes can be quite meaty, with a white flesh cooking up into something like chewy fish- neither good nor bad. Real men drink contents of the gallbladder- having the same magical uplifting effect as Pele’s pep pills, it is said.
I mentioned croc meat as being tasty- less chewy than serpent. Turtle is another underrated dish. It’s hard to describe, but has different layers each with a different flavor and texture, and comes served in its own bowl.
Like chicken, geese, duck, quail, swan? Ever fancied something more, y’know herony? Egret is a rather boney, dark greasy meat with a slight essence du poisson.
Rat can be found roasting on a stick in some parts of the country- supposedly rodents fattened in the fields on sugar cane and not the giants found fattening off effluence in the drainage systems around local markets. Taste like rabbit.
Little squirrel Nutkin loved his bushy red tail and the little hollow in the tree he liked to call home. One day a hungry Khmer boy saw squirrel Nutkin larking about in the tree with gay abandon. Thwack! A stone launched from a catapult knocked poor Nutkin out cold. He awoke to find himself being skinned alive and roasted on a clay barbeque, should he be able to taste his own cooking flesh, he would have found it similar to rabbit.
At dusk little flying mice come out from diurnal hidey holes and swoop around in the dark to gorge on multi bodyweight quantities of insects. On sacred days, when the moon is in the correct spiritual zone, the blessings of ancestors are bestowed on the earth, allowing for that steeped-in-tradition ritual of a bat hunt to begin.
Actually, I made that up, whenever a couple of villagers are awake and sober enough to think about breakfast, they’re free to string up a badminton net in the garden and lure in winged mammals by throwing small stones into the air.
To maximize that fresh from the field flavor the cheeping critters are kept in a box overnight. Come the dawn they are given a proper Buddhist send off by being relieved of their wings and skinned alive. I must admit I didn’t really see the need for this, and felt for batty more than any other creatures I’d seen meet a similar fate. Regardless, the wingless and skinless, yet internally complete, bats get thrown in a pot of bor-bor rice gruel and boiled for a bit.
Although quite scary and alien looking, especially with eyeballs left in, and despite being small and fiddly, the meat isn’t too bad, fairly gamey and again, like rabbit. When cooked over hot coals, they take on the form of Mumrah the Ever Living, should anybody remember that cartoon from the 80’s. I hope rabies and other bat born maladies can be pacified by thorough cooking.
This delicacy is best eaten from a live monkey craniotomy, strapped down to a special chair and served raw with lemon. Only kidding… like bear paw soup and tiger steak, such media hypes are well beyond my budget. Besides there aren’t many monkeys, sun bears or tigers wandering around the farm- the ancestors ate them all.
So, as long as it can be flash fried with some chilli, MSG and sugar added Cambodians could out gross Bear Grylls- nothing is safe out there. As a little piece of irony though, I’ll point out that even though we are less than 100 miles from the sea and the local fish market sells swordfish and sardines at a very reasonable price, nobody will touch the stuff preferring the boney white mud dwellers raised from ponds with high arsenic content. Same goes for pasta Bolognaise, Cumberland sausage and anything made with potatoes. In fact anything given the label mahop barang instantly becomes “Ort chnang!”
Sometimes, in this kingdom, you do gotta wonder.