FOOD IN CAMBODIA

FOOD IN CAMBODIA

On foreign influences on Cambodian cuisine, Heidi Fuller-Love wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When I mentioned the influence of Thai food on Cambodia's culinary offerings. Heng, who runs the cooking course, scowled. "Let's get one thing straight: We influenced their food from 9th to 13th century when Thailand was under our rule. Khmer food came first, and the Thais copied from us." Despite Heng's understandable chauvinism, the influence of other cultures on Khmer cuisine can't be ignored. Cambodian food has distinctive flavors — including the use of preserved lemons in dishes such as the chicken soup ngam nguv — but it was Chinese traders who introduced noodles; the Indian influence is shown in the coconut milk and turmeric used in curries and desserts; and the French presence is clearly seen in that Khmer breakfast, a baguette smothered with liver pâté. [Source: Heidi Fuller-Love, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011]

Many of Cambodia's indigenous food plants were wiped out during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. When Cambodia was safe enough for foreign aid groups to return, the International Rice Bank dipped into its reserves, returning more than 400 rice varieties to Cambodia.

Cambodians are fond of pork, buffalo meat, frogs, mussels, and crabs, and they like their food fresh. Buddhist prohibitions have never kept Cambodians from eating meat; it just kept them killing the animals. Sometimes offerings of entire roasted pig are made at Chinese temples.

Vietnamese have traditionally been the butchers and fishmongers. They sold their products live to ensure they were fresh. Because it was considered taboo for Cambodians to ask for the an animal to be killed, the usual custom was for customers to point at what they wanted and say something like “too bad it is still alive” and then walk down the street, with the Vietnamese vendor catching up with them and giving them what the wanted freshly killed and telling them it just died.

Cambodian Eating and Dietary Habits

Dietary habits appear to be basically the same among the Khmer and other ethnic groups, although the Muslim Cham do not eat pork. The basic foods are rice--in several varieties, fish, and vegetables, especially trakuon (water convolvulus). Rice may be less thoroughly milled than it is in many other rice-eating countries, and consequently it contains more vitamins and roughage. The average rice consumption per person per day before 1970 was almost one-half kilogram. Fermented fish in the form of sauce or of paste are important protein supplements to the diet. Hot peppers, lemon grass, mint, and ginger add flavor to many Khmer dishes; sugar is added to many foods. Several kinds of noodles are eaten. The basic diet is supplemented by vegetables and by fruits--bananas, mangoes, papayas, rambutan, and palm fruit--both wild and cultivated, which grow abundantly throughout the country. Beef, pork, poultry, and eggs are added to meals on special occasions, or, if the family can afford it, daily. In the cities, the diet has been affected by many Western items of food. French, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisine were available in Phnom Penh in pre-Khmer Rouge days. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Many Cambodian dishes are made with prahok, or fermented fish paste, and served with rice. Many Cambodians also eat rice or noodles with spicy chopped or curried fish, chicken, pork, eggs, soup and/or vegetables flavored. Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 7:30am and often consists of rice. Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:00pm. Many people eat out, grabbing a quick meal or snack such as a bowl of noodles. Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. It is the main meal of the day. It is generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice and is similar to lunch except often more dishes are served. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried dishes and soups.

Rural Khmer typically eat several times a day; the first meal consists of a piece of fruit or cake, which workers eat after arriving at the fields. The first full meal is at about 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning; it is prepared by the wife or daughter and brought to the man in the field. Workers eat a large meal at about noon in the field and then have supper with their families after returning home around 5:00 P.M. *

Before the early 1970s, the Cambodian people produced a food supply that provided an adequate diet. Although children gave evidence of caloric underconsumption and of a deficiency in B vitamins. During the Khmer Rouge era, malnutrition increased, especially among the people who were identified as "new people" by the authorities. Collective meals were introduced by 1977. Food rations for the new people were meager. Refugees' statements contain the following descriptions: "[daily rations of] a tin of boiled rice a day mixed with...sauce"; "we ate twice a day, boiled soup and rice only"; "one tin of rice a day shared between three people. Never any meat or fruit"; "Ration was two tins of rice between four persons per day with fish sauce." People were reduced to eating anything they could find-- insects, small mammals, arachnids, crabs, and plants. *

The food situation improved under the Vietnam-backed PRK government, which came to power after the Khmer Rouge in 1979, although in the regime's early years there were still serious food shortages. International food donations improved the situation somewhat. In 1980 monthly rice rations distributed by the government averaged only one to two kilograms per person. People supplemented the ration by growing secondary crops such as corn and potatoes, by fishing, by gathering fruit and vegetables, and by collecting crabs and other edible animals. A 1984 estimate reported that as many as 50 percent of all young people in Cambodia were undernourished.

Rice and Malnutrition in Cambodia

Rice accounts for almost two-thirds of the calories consumed by Cambodia's 14 million people. During a global rice shortage in 2008, Bloomberg reported: “In Cambodia, retail rice prices stabilized at about 1,800 riel a kilo, up from 1,300 riel normally, after the government banned exports last month, says Khiev Bory, a deputy director in the Ministry of Planning. Cambodia's farm ministry predicts a rice surplus of 1.48 million tons this year. ``Rice is available in Cambodia,'' Bory says. ``No problem.'' While there is enough food in some parts of the country, it's too expensive for most poor people, Conrad says. Grandmother Yim says she pays about 67 percent more for her rice than the price quoted by Bory. [Source: Jason Gale, Bloomberg, April 23, 2008 +]

“According to the UN's 2007-2008 Human Development Report. Some 37 percent of children under 5 were stunted because of poor nutrition and 7 percent suffered from malnutrition. ``We have the silent tragedy of children who are malnourished because they don't get enough food in their growing years,'' says Sharon Wilkinson, Geneva-based Care International's country director for Cambodia who oversees more than $8 million in aid projects. ``We are looking at a growing disaster.'' +

Cambodia Cuisine

Genuine Cambodian food is hard for tourists to sample. Most Cambodians dine at home where they eat rice or noodles with fish, and/or vegetables flavored with prahok (pungent, fermented fish paste), tik trei . (milder fish sauce) or kroeung (a spice paste made by crushing turmeric, shallots, garlic, lemon grass and galangol in a mortar).

As is true with Cambodian culture itself, Khmer cuisine is based in India and has incorporated elements from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Java. It was never really fused with French cuisine as was the case in Laos. The two styles of cooking always remained separate, with French food associated with foreigners and the elite.

Khmer cooking has been described as bright and sour, and less sweet and spicy than Thai, and less bitter and salty than Vietnamese. Meals are supposed to a balance between cooked and raw, solid and liquid, and sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Key ingredients include lemon grass, tamarind, curry, soy sauce, sugar, prahok, tik prei, kroeung, vinegar, lime, coconut, hot peppers, garlic, and and fruits such as papaya, mango and banana. Vegetarian meals are widely available and most meat dishes are made with fish, chicken, or pork. Beef is expensive. Sometimes it is water buffalo.

Khmer dishes have traditionally been prepared fresh on three-legged stoves. Food has always been plentiful. In the old days, it was said, Cambodians never worried about food because all they had to do was reach in a tree or throw out a net to get something when they were hungry. This generally seems to be the case today even though people are poor and many Cambodians starved in the Khmer Rouge years.

Cambodia is well known in Southeast Asia for its prahok, a strong, fermented fish paste used in a variety of traditional dishes. Phnom Penh is far and away the best place to try inexpensive Khmer cuisine, though Siem Reap also has some good restaurants. One of the easiest and most affordable ways to acquaint yourself with Khmer cooking is to wander into the food stalls found in markets all over the country and simply sample each dish before deciding what to eat. In Phnom Penh you also have the choice of excellent Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Mediterranean cooking.

Rice is the principal staple in Cambodia. The Battambang region is the country's rice bowl. Most Cambodian dishes are cooked in a wok, known locally as a chhnang khteak. Samlor Kako is one of Cambodian national dishes. It uses an incredible range of ingredients to achieve its complex range of flavors, including the famous prahok or fermented fish paste.

Prahok

Prahok (pungent, fermented fish paste) is a staple of the Cambodian diet. Eaten at practicably every meal, it is usually made from moonlight gourmai—small eight-millimeter-long fish caught in Tonle Sap and the Mekong River—that have been chopped and mashed. The smell can be quite strong and overpowering to people who are not used to it.

Cambodians love the stuff. One farmer told the New York Times, “When I smell prahok I am happy and my heart aches with hunger.” The average Cambodian eats about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of the fish paste a year. That’s quite a lot. Itt is hard to imagine an American eating that much ketchup or any other condiment.

For many poor Cambodians prahok is their primary source of protein. Normally 15,000 to 20,000 tons of fish are made into prahok every year. Slightly fatty fish prahok is best. Overly fatty prahok can be bitter and spoil quickly. Sometimes fish are illegally caught through electrocution with wires hooked up to car batteries.

One Cambodian man told the New York Times “Sometimes you just wrap it in banana leaves and grill it until it is black....Ah good smell, ahhh, delicious—I am hungry. I want some now. It is also eaten plain with plates of raw cabbage eggplant, cucumbers of long beans or smeared o the top of unripe green banana.

See Fishing

Making Prahok

The fish used to make prahok is sold for about 8 cents a kilogram to phahok makers, many of whom are Muslim Chams, who earn about 40 cents a day. They sell their prahok for about 60 cents a kilogram.

Describing how prahok is made, Ek Madra of Reuters wrote, "The clack of knives, hitting chopping blocks, fills the reeking air. Clusters of women and children sit beside piles of fish, cutting off heads one by one...Men and women stand on rickety, stilted platforms built out over the river, stomping barefoot on baskets of beheaded fish. Every few minutes they stop to rinse the baskets of fish pulp through the water. Fish oil is collected on the surface of the water as a white scum and is scooped off for later use. The prahok is then salted and stored in big stone jars to ferment for several months."

The stompers hold onto wooden poles for balance. Their job is to squeeze out fish fat referred to as fish cheese. There are machine that do the squeezing but most Cambodians prefer stomped prahok.

One stomper told the New York Times, “Up and down, up and down. Then dip into water to wash out the fat and the guts. Stomp and rinse. Stomp and rinse. We do it the way our parents taught us.” Professional stompers can make $1 a day. One said, “I have my own method, bending my feet to push the fat out. But for that I have to wear sandals so the bones don’t cut me. Most people don’t wear sandals and have to stomp carefully.”

Cambodian Dishes

Cambodian Dishes include noodle soups; curries; fish soup; Cambodian-style stews; chopped meat or river fish salad (mixed with onions, lemon grass, and spices); pork stewed in caramelized palm sugar; stir-fried chicken with peas-size eggplants; frogs and crab stuffed with minced pork and lemon grass; curried fish; stir-fried fish with bamboo and water lilies; soup with fish balls, nanna blossoms and pork broth soured with tamarind; and fish, chicken, pork, soup and/or vegetables flavored with lemon grass, coconut, vinegar, hot peppers, garlic, and sugar. Prahok is eaten with practically every meal.

Dishes served at expensive restaurants include thing like braised duck with cinnamon and honey, sour pineapple and tomato soup, deep fried serpent fis with vermicelli and black sauce. Indian, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes are also widely available. They include things like fried noodles, fried rice, fried rice with chicken, fried rice with pork, fried rice with prawns, Indian-style curry, crisp fried noodles, sweet and sour vegetables, beef in oyster sauce, chicken with ginger and coconut milk, fried rice with ginger, curried chicken, grilled fish in banana leaves, pork, chicken or prawn soup, and curries.

A bowl of fresh Khmer sour soup helps the body feel refreshed and clean, leaving just enough room for dessert. Sour soup is among the most popular Khmer foods. For years, this vegetable stew has fed hardworking Cambodians, particularly in the countryside where ingredients are easily found in neighboring pastures and ponds. Today, city dwellers enjoy this dish as a healthy alternative to fried bananas and fish. Expatriates living in Cambodia also are realizing the healthy benefits of eating a diet of fresh fish and water green, the base of Khmer sour soup.

Shrimp with lime is made with shrimp, limes, sugar, salt, chilies and garlic—all common ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking. But rather than being stir friend as is the case with dishes cooked elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the shrimps are cooked in a pungent sauce in such a way as to take on a strong flavor but remain juicy. The dish is very sweet and sour and is easy and quick to make.

Fruits and Vegetables in Vietnam

Favorite vegetables include beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, lettuce, onions, peas, potatoes, and sweet corn. Vegetables are commonly eaten during the main part of a meal. They may be served raw in a salad, cooked and served with a sauce, or added to a soup. Among the locally consumed fruits are guavas, papayas, watermelons, rambutans (lychee-like fruit) lychees, bread fruit, passion fruit, jerek (pomelo), starfruit, durians (smelly but delicious), sugar cane, mangosteens, jackfruit, longans, pineapples, oranges, bananas, coconuts and mangos.

Water spinach is a favorite Khmer vegetable. According to a United Nation survey in four rural provinces in 1995, 87.5 percent of Cambodians interviewed said they had foraged for wild food.

Cambodians are very fond of mangos. Mango season is regarded as a happy time, and, it is said that one of the greatest pleasures in life is sampling mangos of different sweetness and enjoying the contrasts in flavors. When Cambodians eat mangos, they make an efforts to gently lift off the skin of the mango rather than slice it off.

There are three kinds of mangos available in Cambodia: cheap, bright orange ones with fibrous fruit; mid ranged ones with streaks of sour flavor; and the top-end ones with a creamy, smooth texture and a sweetness that is accompanied by spicy, musky and tart flavors. Guava, longan, mangosteen, and custard apples are also widely enjoyed in Cambodia.

Street Food and Fashionable Cambodian Restaurants

Popular snacks sold on the streets include noum sloeuk chok (barbecued rice pancakes with coconut cream and sesame), amok (curried fish custard steamed in banana leaves), barbecued meats, noodle soup, steamed buns with barbecued meat inside, and mango slices dipped in chilies powder, sugar and salt.

Sottha Khunn, the acclaimed chef at Le Cirque in New York, is Cambodian. Le Cirque is one of the few restaurants to be awarded a four star rating from the New York Times. Sottha is regarded as one of the great pioneers of fusing eastern and western cuisines, creating masterpieces like crabmeat ravioli served in ginger broth, with exotic fruits with lemongrass-favored syrup.

In 2008, Aha Wine Bar and Restaurant in Siem Reap made the Conde Nast Traveler Hot Tables List. The review: Tourists should be forgiven for crying out the name of this tapas spot as if in a moment of inspired gastronomic discovery. Inside the stylish new Hotel Be Angkor, on a pedestrian-only stretch nicknamed Bar Street, it is so named for the Khmer word for food. Inside, there are cool stone floors and comfortable leather chairs surrounding a central kitchen where local talent Oeng Ratan turns out small plates of regional favorites. Try the green mango and dried snake salad, an addictive combination of sweet, salty, and sour; the super-spicy stir-fried prawns; or the eel sautéed with capsicum and holy basil. International options, especially the delicate tuna seared in tarragon, are equally good. The 400-bottle wine wall makes it a cinch to pair a wide variety of tapas ($2-$12). [Source: Conde Nast Traveler, July 08, 2008]

Heidi Fuller-Love wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “That evening Heng took me to the food stands surrounding Siem Reap's night market. The aroma of spicy barbecued meats swirled around us as we made our way through the vast souk and bagged two of the few empty seats next to a long line of food carts. "When you first come to Cambodia, people tell you never to eat street food, but if you want to eat the best of Khmer cuisine you should never eat anywhere else," Heng said. [Source: Heidi Fuller-Love, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011 ^^^]

“We sat at rickety plastic tables and ate cháo lòng, a flavorful rice broth dotted with cubes of congealed blood and served with tubular chunks of tripe. Emboldened by my first encounter with Khmer offal, I ordered plea sach ko — a version of laab made with beef tripe, toasted rice and cilantro — the next morning for breakfast. Sweet and salty with a hint of spice, it looked hideous but tasted delicious.” ^^^

Cambodian Fast Food

Rosa Ellen wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, “With 10 KFC stores rolled out in the five years since the company set up in Cambodia, the country’s first drive-thru planned, and US fast food giant Burger King making its foray into the market, the taste for fried chicken and sweet hamburger buns appears to be rapidly growing on Cambodian consumers. [Source: Rosa Ellen, Phnom Penh Post, March 16, 2013 ***]

“The newness of Cambodia’s fast food industry means companies’ activities don’t arouse the same concerns over health and advertising tactics that they do in the West, says PR specialist Glen Felgate, managing director of Quantum Publicity. “I think the perception of fast food here is probably somewhat different because it’s fairly new. Some have been in the market for a number of years, but there are restaurants that make fast food attractive to more than just youngsters and teenagers. “From what I’ve seen, you do see families with kids going to fast food restaurants. It becomes more of an outing than just a meal.” ***

“Lucky Burger is KFC’s main rival, according to Benjamin Jerome, a KFC manager, because it has cornered the burger-chicken market. “Lucky Burger has adopted a very good system by providing the locals a range of burgers as well as chicken. They were the first to introduce fast food in Cambodia,” he says. ***

“More aggressive advertising is not guaranteed just because there are newer, international players entering the Cambodian market, Jerome says. “Depends on the strategy employed by other companies. I think most of the advertisement is done by Pizza Company and BB World.” Tep Virak, the general manager at Express Food Group, which runs the Pizza Company (as well as ice cream parlours Swensen’s and Dairy Queen), says their advertising campaigns begin every two months, when new products are launched. He says families, not children, are the target market. The company sponsors school sports days and exhibitions, give tours of their outlets to international schools and runs a business plan competition. ***

KFC Mascot Invades a Cambodian School

Rosa Ellen wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, “In a classroom at one of Phnom Penh’s larger international schools, uniformed children aged three and up are jumping up and down in increasingly wild abandon. Today, they are being paid a visit by a special character. Class has been cancelled for both the morning and afternoon, and dozens of excited children are assembled to join him for a special round of activities. When Chicky, KFC’s costumed chicken mascot appears, the music for K-Pop hit Gangnam Style comes on, and everyone is encouraged to dance. Chicky moves as best he can. There is no discernible educational element to the event, but there are a lot of balloons and spirited encouragement from the KFC staff – the youngest children are completely caught up. [Source: Rosa Ellen, Phnom Penh Post, March 16, 2013 ***]

“When this “KFC Day” happened at his school, English-language teacher Peter was not impressed. “We were told the day before that KFC would be coming to do a fun day with the kids, ‘to play games with the kids.’ I thought it was pretty ridiculous. They came and sang a song about watermelons and then Chicky came out and played Gangnam Style. Then they played Gangnam Style another 20 times and then they sold chicken to them. That’s the day in a nutshell.” ***

“In the month of February, Chicky made appearances at five schools – mostly at the behest of parents, says general manager of KFC (Kampuchea Food Corporation – KFC’s Cambodian franchisee)Benjamin Jerome. “Most of our children’s activities – the parents come and ask us to organise birthdays,” he says. Other classmates then join in on the activities. This was not what happened at his school, Peter says. ***

“As Gangnam Style began to play once more and another round of excited shrieks filled the air, Peter noticed some of his older children slipping away from the KFC carnival. “The older kids just left and hid in the classrooms. I didn’t have the heart to stop them. “Grades two and up didn’t care about a guy dressed up in a chicken costume. It was a waste of a teaching day. There might be no nutritional message to Chicky’s school visits, but the chicken – who, admittedly, can’t really speak but is a good mime – leads games that encourage communication skills and team-building, a KFC staffer says. ***

Burger King in Cambodia

Rosa Ellen wrote in the Phnom Penh Post, “If food franchises trade on the pull of the familiar, then the Phnom Penh International Airport Burger King – the first in the country – has found a happy approximate. I haven’t even been to a Burger King before and already I’m feeling lulled into a sense of routine. As I walk into the brightly lit restaurant and breathe in the nondescript, savoury-scented air, I unthinkingly step into a queue. It’s a long queue and my first interaction with a fellow customer is one that is probably also happening in Burger Kings all over the world. [Source: Rosa Ellen, Phnom Penh Post, March 16, 2013 ***]

“The lady – a large American – squeezes past behind me and speaks into my ear. “There’s two queues!” she tells me urgently, as though making a public service announcement. “Everyone’s queuing in one but there’s two! My husband is by himself in that one there.” Realising she’s just giving a fellow patron a tip, and not trying to steal my precious spot in the queue, I in turn generously pass on the tip to the man ahead of me. It will be the last charitable thought I have in my visit. ***

“The crowd at Burger King this Sunday evening seems to be almost entirely made up of foreigners, mostly from the US. Plonked into the padded lounge chairs, staring into space, loosening bundles of pale greasy fries from their cardboard pockets. Little kids getting their chops around Whopper juniors. I assume everyone is waiting for flights, but then I spy two long-term Phnom Penh hacks walking through the doors, with no signs of luggage. They don’t look terribly proud to be there. ***

“The wait for the food is starting to feel quite long. After ordering in an efficient, army-like manner, you are given a table number and told to go sit down. If I had a plane to catch, but was still waiting on my chicken nuggets, I’d be having palpitations. Like Lucky Burger, the restaurant doesn’t yet boast the razor-quick, trademarked assembly line that make McDonald’s et al the sanitized hamburger troughs that they are in the West. That doesn’t stop some of the customers from behaving like pigs. ***

“Instead of ‘thank you’, one bulky foreigner slams his fist down on the table when his order finally arrives. The burgers are disappointing. The junior Whopper deal ($3.40) a paltry stale bun, with a thin, hard meat patty. Thick slices of onion and too much sweet mayonnaise overpowers the burger. Chicken nuggets, as I should have known, are not real cuts of chicken. I’m not sure what they are: chicken flavoured sponge? They don’t disappoint though and are quite tasty. Fries are not very pleasant at all and undercooked. After I’ve eaten my things and left a tray of paper and cardboard, I slip out just as a new crowd of traveling Westerners arrive, their beleaguered posse dutifully forming one long queue.

Weird Food in Cambodia

According to the New York Times: “Khmer cuisine is not for the squeamish: garlicky crickets, black beetles, crispy tarantula and chopped chicken bits with bone.” People in Cambodia eat reptiles, rats, frogs, birds and a variety of insects. In the countryside people have traditionally eaten these things as sources of protein. During the Khmer Rouge years, people ate them to survive.

Bat meat is considered a delicacy and bat blood is used to cure coughs. The owner of restaurant that serves fruit bat boiled or fried Cambodian or Thai style told the Phnom Penh Post, "Its blood is good for eyesight, it improves the circulation and cools the chest temperature. The meat helps produce strength because this animal eats fruit like guava, longan, mangosteen, and custard apple.”

The agricultural ministry has clamped down on restaurants that sell dishes made with endangered species such as pangolin (scaly anteater), soft-nosed turtle, clouded leopard and rare birds. Restaurants that sell endangered animals risk jail time and stiff fines.

Heidi Fuller-Love wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ I headed for a bamboo food hut on stilts and ordered frog amok. A variation on Cambodia's signature dish fish amok, the entire frog (not just its legs) was steamed in a banana-leaf basket along with prahok, turmeric and coconut milk. Served with a zingy green papaya salad, the chopped frog was tender and tasted like creamy chicken. [Source: Heidi Fuller-Love, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011 ^^^]

In “the tiny town of Skun I visited the fascinating breeding project and the edible insect exhibition at the Skun Spider Sanctuary, where I learned that arachnids are a gastronomic delicacy in Cambodia. "Along with lizards, scorpions and rats, they were introduced onto the menu during the famine under the Khmer Rouge regime, but now they have become so popular that there are fears they could be hunted to extinction," sanctuary employee Sopheap told me. ^^^

“A lazy putter along the N7 brought me to Kampong Cham, a bustling town along the Mekong River where I spent the night in a rundown guesthouse and ate termite-egg soup, popping each tiny egg between my teeth to enjoy the salty, slightly sour taste.” In Phnom Penh she ate at Romdeng. “I took my seat at this restaurant set in a charming colonial house. Run by former street children, Romdeng is renowned for its local cuisine. After an entree of fried spider served with a spicy lime dipping sauce, I tucked into the green mango and wild snake salad. Pungent and chewy, the dried snake, complemented by the silky sweet mango, was superb.” ^^^

Insects as Food in Cambodia

Vendors at markets in Phnom Penh sell fried crickets. Crickets are a popular snack in the May-to-November rainy season when they are filled with eggs. They sell for $3 for 52 in at this time of the year. Prices fall to $1 for 52 after heavy rains when the crickets are easy to catch. Restaurants in Takeo sell large ants marinated in oil for a few days to give them a sour taste.

Academic reports of insect consumption in Cambodia are almost non-existent, but it must occur fairly widely there as it is widespread in Viet Nam to the east and in Thailand to the west. Bréhion (1913; vide Bodenheimer 1951, pp. 264-265) mentions that among the forest-dwelling Mois in Khas and Pnons (Cambodia), many big beetles, all larvae, and "every living thing" is eaten when hunger prevails.

Onnucha Hutasingh (1996) reports that "Cambodian farmers usually catch locusts, high in protein, from Ban Komokrown near Bantey Meanchey's Sisaphon district and sell them to Thai traders at Rong Klua market [Thailand] where they fetch 40 baht a kilogramme. Fried locusts are a popular snack among Cambodians and Thais." Hutasingh interviewed a Cambodian villager at the Rong Klua market who removes wings from locusts for four baht a kg. According to Hutasingh, many Cambodian villagers have abandoned their land to work as laborers along the Thai border for a daily wage of 50-80 baht.

Spiders as Food in Cambodia

Skoeun, a town near Phnom Penh, is famous for its spider brochettes. The mildly-toxic two-inch- long spiders are caught in the nearby forests, dipped in flour and powered peanuts and fried. Sold for about 20 cents a stick, they are served in restaurants and hawked from trays to passing motorists. One customer at a spider restaurant told the Phnom Penh Post. "It's not as tasty as cricket, but it could be good if you eat it with wine." Another said, "It's nice, it tastes good. They clean the stomach.”

Heidi Fuller-Love wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Skun is home to Cambodia's largest concentration of tarantulas. Tthe market stands were piled high with fried crickets, grilled locusts and braised a-pings, as the beleaguered arachnids are known locally. All around me school kids and old women were buying the spiders. They are black, hairy, as big as a hand and, at 50 cents each, didn't come cheap. "We fry them to destroy the poison, then dip them in garlic and salt," a vendor said.[Source: Heidi Fuller-Love, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 2011 ^^^]

“Steeling myself for the big one, I browsed the stands, sampling crickets (bland and crunchy) and locusts (meaty and the legs stick between the teeth) before buying a bag of tarantulas. Shutting my eyes, I dipped my hand in the bag, pulled off a leg and nibbled. Surprisingly, once the initial revulsion wore off, the taste was not so bad. The texture of the a-ping was rough and crispy like a pork crackling, but inside it was tender and fatty and tasted a bit like cod. "The head is the best bit," said an old woman, with half a spider in her hand, half in her mouth. I decided to take her word for it and offered her the rest of my bag. She accepted gratefully and made short shrift of the three arachnids inside. ^^^

Dogs and Cats as Food in Cambodia

"When my wife and I were in Cambodia last year," wrote Blue Cross of India chair Chinny Krishna, "we specifically enquired of many people about dog-eating and were told by almost all of them that dogs are eaten by some Cambodians, including the Cham, who are Muslims. Dogs are supposed to be haram or unclean in Islam, but obviously they are considered clean enough to be eaten in Cambodia. There are a lot of Thai and Vietnamese visitors to Cambodia who also eat dog meat. "Nobody mentioned cats. I have no idea as to the number of dogs eaten," Krishna acknowledged, "but obviously it would run into the thousands." [Source: animalpeoplenews.org, September 2003]

The Dorling Kindersley World Reference Atlas estimates that 4 percent of Cambodians are ethnic Chinese, 1 percent are ethnic Vietnamese, and the Cham are under 1 percent. Most Cambodian dog eating is probably by members of these three minority communities.

Most other Cambodians are ethnic Khmer. Historically, the Khmer were Buddhists, who ate fish and crustaceans but not many land animals. Most Khmer Buddhist teachers and traditions were exterminated and eradicated by the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of 1975-1979, however, and after decades of poverty, hunger, and ignorance, there may no longer be any cultural obstacle to eating any kind of meat. Historically, cats had a high status in Cambodia, as in Burma, but whether this view survived the Khmer Rouge is unclear.

Cambodian Rat Meat, Floods and Trade with Vietnam

Regarded as a delicacy, rat is usually chopped into small pieces and fried in oil. During the bird flu outbreak in 2004, many Cambodian switched from chicken to rat. Cambodians won’t eat just anything. They draw the line at dog meat, which is popular in Vietnam and China. "If we eat it we feel ashamed," one man told the Phnom Penh Post, "because people think dog is such as bad animal."

In November 2011, Agence France-Presse reported: “So many rats have drowned in Cambodia’s worst flooding in over a decade that the cross-border trade in the rodent’s meat has plummeted, Prime Minister Hun Sen said. “Each year 17 tons (about 37,000 pounds) of rats are exported to Vietnam. This year there is a shortage of rats for export because the rats have died in the floods,” he said, citing reports from officials at the southern Chrey Thom border checkpoint. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 3, 2011 <>]

“While there are no clear figures on the scale of the industry, rat meat is considered a cheap and tasty treat in Vietnam and the country is a keen importer of live rats from Cambodian villages along the border. Ros Sothea, chief of Chrey Thom border checkpoint, told AFP he had no statistics on the impact of this year’s floods on the trade but he had noticed very few rats were being sold to Vietnam. “Almost no rats are being exported to Vietnam because the floods have killed them,” he said. “Last year, a lot of rats were exported,” he said. Cambodia’s deadliest floods since 2000, triggered by heavy rains, have killed at least 247 people and destroyed nearly one tenth of the nation’s rice paddy. <>

“Every 48 years bamboo forests surrounding the towns there flower, fruit and die. The rats who live there, whose population is normally constrained by lack of resources, eat the fruit and breed prodigiously. Their babies and their baby’s babies keep eating and breeding until there’s no fruit left—at which point starvation drives rats in a great swarm to devastate the rice crops in northern India. The Mautam is a cyclic ecological phenomenon that occurs exactly every 48 years in the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, 30 percent of which are covered by wild bamboo forests. Other affected areas are Hakha, Thantlang, Falam, Paletwa and Matupi in Burma creating a widespread famine. The next Mautam is due in 2048. <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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