The other week I ate five different meats for dinner. Oddly the chicken was a bit gross.
After months of passing them in every second tourist restaurant in town, we figured we’d try out the traditional Khmer Degustation Barbecue. A metal steam plate is placed over hot coals in the center of the table, there is stock around the sides in which you cook noodles and vegetables, while the meat is cooked on a raised part in the centre.
We choose to dine at the aptly named Cambodian BBQ on The Alley. It’s a bit swankier than the other barbecue joints, but the food always smells good as you pass, and it’s always pretty busy which tends to be a good sign, even in a tourist town like Siem Reap.
For about $15 we chose five meats and got all we could eat of the noodles, steamed rice and vegetables. We went for snake, crocodile, ostrich and then beef and chicken -just in case the rest didn’t go down so well. There was also the option of goat, frog, pork, prawns and squid – being so far from the sea though, we tend to stay away from seafood around town (especially the generic “river fish”, if you saw the colour of the river, you’d know what I mean; kind of like the Liffey minus the trolleys).
A waiter comes over first to help you get started. He chucks the noodles and vegetables to cook in the stock then asked us which meat we’d like to try first. We opted for the croc. Though giving it was flooding and there were lots of rumours of crocodiles escaping from the many farms around town, I was a little worried that this was the definition of bad karma. But hey, you have to try these things at least once, even if it does get you comeuppance-attacked on the way home.
He dutifully dipped each piece in some egg-yolk and left it to sizzle over the coals.
The crocodile was really tasty, a pink meat it had a bit of a bacon hue (though that might be attributed to the mound of pork fat it was cooking in) it was tender, not gamey-tasting at all, definitely something I’d try again.
We went for the chicken next, just to break things up, unfortunately it wasn’t the best part of the bird – but we’ll put that down to more elaborate fare being the restaurant’s specialty.
Next up was the Ostrich. Cambodia doesn’t strike me as an Ostrich-suitable habitat though, so I’m not sure how “native” this one was. Nonetheless, it was delicious, I think my favourite of the night; I was expecting something like turkey, but the red meat is like a really nicely marinaded piece of fillet beef, tender, light, but packed with flavour.
We decided we’d finish with the beef, just in case the snake was awful and we needed to get the taste out of our mouths. But in fact it wasn’t so awful. The closest thing I can pair it to is a chewy pork chop. Though by the time we’d reached our fourth and fifth meats, we were on our own. The waiter had abandoned us, and given we’d never cooked snake before, it may have been overdone. Some parts were quite tasty, others too elasticated to eat. Perhaps snake is like squid, it needs to be cooked just right or the texture and taste are ruined?
This was the one that got to me the most though, the one I could actually picture as a living creature, slithering about. Picturing my dinner in a field is something I, as a guilty meat-eater, try exceedingly hard not to do. Lamb anyone?
All in all it was a pretty awesome dinner. While it was pricey by local standards I loved the novelty of watching it cook and I’m sure we’ll head back if we have visitors throughout the year. I also think those kind of meals are great for helping you digest, as there’s a gap between each “course”.
For me trying new food, as much as I enjoy expanding my palate, is more about the bragging rights than anything else. I can now scratch snake, ostrich, crocodile and beetle* off the bucket list. Next up tarantula, and by the end of the year, I might have been ballsy enough to sample one of the fertilised duck eggs they sell all over town.
One Cambodian dish I won’t be trying is dog. I know it’s an animal like all others, but I hope to own one some day, and I want to be able to look it in the eye.